9 November 2001

TACKLE-TRACKING, USMILITARYSTYLE

Skynet Telematics could be about to revolutionise tractor and machinery hire with

a proactive machine tracking and management system that combines military

satellites and mobile phone technology. Geoff Ashcroft reports

BEING able to pin-point the location of any item of machinery in your fleet, to within a metre of its actual location at any time of the day or night, might be considered a useful asset for many tractor and machinery hire businesses.

Nothing too unusual in that, you might think, given the growing number of satellite tracking devices now on the market.

But how about a system that allows remote immobilisation of a machine at will, check engine hours worked, monitor operating temperatures, filter condition, plus oil and fuel levels, and install an invisible electronic security fence around the machines working environment? And all from the comfort and security of the farm office.

Sounds too good to be true? Not according to London-based Skynet Telematics. Its Skynet fleet management and tracking system could appear to be something approaching utopia for many contractors and machinery hire companies.

"We have developed the Skynet system to provide comprehensive reports on a machines operational status, in real-time, and all from the comfort of the farm office," says Dave Manning, Skynet Telematics technical sales manager. "It is almost black box technology for the agricultural industry."

The key to the system is its use of the American military satellite network and GSM digital technology similar to that used by mobile phone networks, which operate with an electronic control box and a modem mounted on each piece of machinery. The box monitors specific machine functions, and when preset parameters of operation are exceeded, the system automatically sends an alarm signal back to Skynets 24-hour call centre. Skynet then alerts its customers to a problem with a particular machine.

Those customers who want more involvement can choose to monitor the system themselves using an office-based PC.

"We rely on text messaging rather than phone calls from a machine," says Mr Manning. "Text messages need only 10% signal strength to operate when compared to mobile phone calls, so communication is virtually guaranteed, and it is cheaper, too."

The Skynet system is installed covertly on equipment, with only Skynet knowing the full location of the control box and its modem. "Some manufacturers wiring systems are easier to tap into than others, though it is quite easy to disguise the installation of the system," he adds.

"As a proactive machinery management system, the only restriction to its functions will be the price and the customers imagination," he says. "We can monitor virtually any aspect of machine operation."

Checking the location of a machine, to prevent theft or misuse, is just one aspect of the systems operation. Depending on the configuration, customers can choose from a variety of management functions, including remote immobilisation, data logging, machine status checks through remote monitoring of gauges, filters and working temperatures, and the installation of an electronic geofence. The latter triggers an on-board alarm and immobiliser if the machine is removed from a designated operating area, while tilt and motion sensors alert the Skynet call centre to any unauthorised machine movement.

"Remote immobilisation can be managed in several ways," says Mr Manning. "It can be activated automatically by excessive operating temperatures or the number of contracted operating hours being exceeded, or it can be shut-down manually if a hire customer withholds regular payment for a machine on long-term hire."

Basic system

For a fee of £399, customers can start with a basic-spec, single machine Skynet system. The starter package includes machine tracking, remote immobilisation and the ability to equip the machine with a geo-fence. To get the system operational then needs a £30 connection fee and a monthly line rental of £7.50 to cover the GSM subscription and Skynets 24/7 monitoring service.

"Each time the machine is contacted by its owner for an update, or if the machine sends in its own alarm signal, the Skynet customer is charged 10p," he says. "It is a sensibly priced system considering the management potential on offer."

Mr Manning sees the system as one that will allow hirers to get better returns on their kit, which should help to reinforce hourly rates.

"Monitoring a machine through the hours it has worked allows machinery hirers to recover revenue from prolonged weekend working or double shifting, which would normally be difficult to prove through existing rental agreements," he says. "With Skynets monitoring system, there is no disputing how long or how hard a machine has been worked."

Keen convert

The implications of operating such a management system it seems could be limitless, and one convert to the Skynet package is Peter Watson, who runs MTS Bobcat from Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

Working closely with Skynets Dave Manning, Mr Watson has helped to hone the system into one that suits the machinery hire business and he now has the system installed on over half of his 160-machine hire fleet, including skid steer loaders, telehandlers and mini excavators.

"Having Skynet installed on our machines has put us back in the driving seat as a machinery hire company," says Mr Watson. "We are no longer at the mercy of customers who try to dictate terms and conditions, or those who try to wriggle out of scenarios involving machine breakdowns caused by poor operation. We can remote-monitor most operating functions and the location of the machines, all from the comfort of our own office."

Geo-fence

Mr Watsons system includes a geo-fence to prevent machinery from straying beyond a given operational area, and machines can have their hours remotely monitored along with critical engine functions such as temperatures, filter condition, fuel and oil levels and the level of battery charge.

"It allows us to proactively manage machines when out on hire," he says. "We know the moment there is a problem and we can also plan for on-site maintenance by getting advanced notification of how many hours a machine has covered."

Mr Watson reckons one of the biggest disputes comes from dirty fuel. "When a machine grinds to a halt and an irate customer comes on the phone, we can call the Skynet system to get an update on a machines vitals," he says. "We can usually pinpoint a problem immediately, and if the fuel filter has become blocked, we can diffuse a tricky situation instantly. It can be quite a humbling experience for our customers.

"From a fleet management perspective, the Skynet system does everything I want it to do," says Mr Watson.

Long term, he reckons the application of Skynet is one that will alter the way machinery hire companies continue to operate and maintain their fleets.

"It is an affordable system that gives total control of our fleet, no matter where equipment is located," he says. "But the big bonus will be cheaper insurance premiums, as any machine fitted with the Skynet system will be totally useless to thieves. It also takes a lot of insurance responsibility off the customer and allows us to proactively manage machines when out on hire," he says. "As a result, we can offer customers insurance cover for about £2 a day."

"And being covert in its installation means thieves will not be able to selectively target particular machines – they wont have a clue," he says. "Yet we are able to locate any of our Skynet-equipped machines 24 hours a day, 365 days a year." &#42