10 November 2001

Put your office in the tractor

WHATS your vision of the future? Will you be tied more to the office in a vain attempt to wade through the mounting paperwork? Or will the need to reduce your labour costs mean youll be spending even more time on the tractor?

Well you might be able to do both. Among the exhibits at AgriVision will be the teletractor initiative. The idea is to bring the office into the tractor. A number of gadgets will not only help you keep record-keeping up to date, but will keep you in touch with various internet and database services via the latest in mobile communications.

This is being put to the test in a £400,000 research project, part-funded by the Department of Trade and Industry. Project partners ADAS, Multimedia Design Studio and Peter Rickard Services are planning to show some of the progress so far to growers at the AgriVision event.

"Theres only six months to go of the two-year project and weve already identified some areas we want to take forward," says ADAS Sally Runham. A number of gizmos, including portable digital assistants (PDA), internet-enabled (WAP) phones, laptops with phone cards and digital cameras have been put to the test in three case studies.

"Weve been looking at the sorts of services farmers can use this technology for. Our East Anglian growers, trying out the Nokia 9110 fax and e-mail phone, for example, say its now become an important part of their business."

Muddy Boots, pioneers of software applications for Pocket PC PDAs, will be demonstrating how to link your PDA in the field direct to your desktop computer via a built-in phone card. "Its about having all the resources and data you need to make a management decision in the field accessible through a pocket-sized component," says Muddys Jeff Goulding.

The latest in satellite technology will be demonstrated by Farm Works. The company has just received delivery of a £250 GPS receiver you can clip on to a PDA. This will pinpoint your position within 3m using the new EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigational Overlay Service) system, due to be available for commercial testing on January 1.

One of the IT seminars will update growers on the latest GPS thinking from Silsoe Research Institute. Sensor technology has matured, says Silsoes Paul Miller: "Its not about replacing a man, but giving him the tools to operate more effectively over a wider area." He will also be exploring how to technology can make record-keeping and decision-making more efficient processes.

But dont get scared away if youre an IT beginner, says Andy Offer of the British Association of IT in Agriculture. "There are all sorts of clever things you can do with IT, but there are also some very simple things that bring huge time savings."

He cites e-mail and standard office-based or accounting software as examples. "These are things that can replace the repetitive, time-consuming tasks you have to do. If youre looking for several fuel or fertiliser quotes, for example, you can fire off an e-mail in minutes at next to no cost. Surely thats better than spending hours chasing people on the phone?"

By the time youve seen and heard all this, your head will be buzzing. Perhaps its time to drop in to the Cyber Café, where help is at hand while you surf the internet over a cappuccino and a danish.