Thanos and GPS Guidance

If you are not a follower of the Marvel Avengers movies, this may be a challenge for you.  

  • Question:  What do Thanos and GPS Guidance have in common?  
  • Answer:  They were both “inevitable”.

Thanos was the genocidal, galaxy-purging protagonist in the series of Marvel movies, whose objective was to bring stability to the Universe by destroying half of all life everywhere.  The story climaxed in the grand finale: “Avengers Endgame”.  In a memorable scene with Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, Thanos explains why his victory was inevitable, and even why he himself was inevitable.  He knew.  Absolutely and to the core of his being, he knew that he would prevail.

But what does that have to do with GPS Guidance?  Well, if you ask farmers today to name the technology that has most aided or revolutionized their business, many will confidently say that GPS Guidance for their tractors and field machines is that technology.  They know the difference it is making for them, and it is substantial.  But that was not always the case.

GPS Guidance first demonstrated at Farm Progress Show, 2002

We started developing GPS Guidance in 1997 at Caterpillar Ag Products, for the new Challenger MT700 series tractors (later acquired and now owned by AGCO).  We worked with Beeline Technologies from Brisbane, Australia on the core technology, but integrated it as a standard subsystem in the tractor.  It was launched as the world’s first factory-integrated GPS Guidance option in June 2002, and proudly demonstrated at the Farm Progress Show that year.

GPS Guidance under the roof of 2001 Challenger MT700 tractor

For those of us on the project, the eventual success was inevitable.  We knew how the technology worked.  We could see the benefits to customers (30-50% increased coverage speed, 15-20% less fuel consumption, reduced operator fatigue, etc), and we knew that we could make it reliable (eventually).  But that was not how it looked to others.

Many in our Company, in our Dealers, and even in our Customer base were not so sure.  Yes, it promised amazing performance improvements IF IT WORKED.  But they were not convinced that it could be made to work.  It was too new.  To different.  Too unpredictable.

But this is the case with any new technology.  In the beginning, when some starry-eyed dreamer, hyped-up on caffeine and bursting with enthusiasm, brings a new idea to the market, most people don’t “get it”.  They say things like “This isn’t a product, this is a science project”.  Or maybe if they are kind “Looks like a great theory… come back when you get the bugs all ironed out”.

Disruptive innovations are inconvenient precisely because they are disruptive.  With any new innovation, there will be a period of time when success is not obvious.  When using the product is not convenient, and when you have to change too much in order to do so.  There will be a few visionary customers who will put up with the inconvenience because they see the potential benefit, and because they have a need to be out in front of technology in this area.  But most will wait, and many will criticize.

MT700 working alternate passes, using GPS Guidance

If you are developing one of these new technologies, the challenge is to find the visionary customers and work with them to develop the better product.  You don’t need a lot of customers at the beginning, but you desperately need the feedback to your initial product concept.  Even the best innovations will be wrong in many small and important ways.  But the innovators and early adopters in your customer base will guide you to make the corrections needed to eventually get the product right for the mainstream market.

The field of innovation, in agriculture and other markets, is littered with great innovative ideas that did not succeed.  Some were too late to succeed before they were replaced with even newer and better ideas (remember private base stations before the adoption of high-accuracy satellite based corrections or RTK networks?).  Some are good ideas, and actually got traction in the market before being obsoleted by better ideas (remember Personal Data Assistants and Walkman stereos?).  Others succumbed to the early criticism and did not develop the product to the point where the benefit could be achieved (and we don’t remember these at all!).

There are a lot of exciting ideas out there now, and I would be remiss if I did not mention some of them:

  • Fully autonomous field machines… Robots to reduce manpower in the field
  • Fully automated “Lights-out Elevators”… reducing or eliminating the manpower needed to receive grain, and to provide 24/7 accessibility during busy harvest season
  • Ideas to make farms energy self-sufficient (micro-grids, manure processing, and power generation from wind and sun)
  • Robots and drones for scouting and field work
  • Satellite imagery for planning and scouting fields
  • Robots for livestock management
  • Full automation for on-farm grain storage to manage grain quality and quantity
  • And the list goes on…

In the end, Thanos was wrong.  His victory was not inevitable.  And neither is the success of any of these or many other innovations that are developing in fertile minds, even as you read these words.  The best ideas still need persistence and a lot of support to succeed.  

So to all of you “Captain Americas” out there that are pushing forward with a new innovation, it’s time to stand, tighten your shield, and prepare to face the next challenges to your dream.  You can do it.  GPS Guidance can be an example to you.  You can succeed, but not if you don’t keep fighting.

Images of Captain America and Thanos are from the movie “Avengers: Endgame”, Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, Produced by Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios, 2019.

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