top of page

Interview | Mark Lewellen, Manager of Spectrum Advocacy at John Deere in Washington, D.C.

Adjacent Market: Agriculture

Mobility Satellite User Interview with Mark Lewellen, Manager of Spectrum Advocacy at John Deere in Washington, D.C.

Catherine: What is your satellite background and how did you get involved with John


Mark: In my thirty-plus year career, I have been fortunate to have worked on satellite issues in both U.S. domestic and international contexts. I‘ve done technical interference and sharing studies for satellite companies like Hughes, Intelsat and Panamsat. I also did a lot of ITU/WRC related work for Ellipso (a “Big Leo” second round applicant) and Leo One USA (a “Little Leo” second round applicant).

In fact I did the set of three ITU-R Recommendations which defined the Performance Objectives, Interference Criteria and Sharing Criteria for Orbcomm service downlinks in the 137-138 MHz band, which are still in the Radio Regulations. After that I was a Spectrum Manager at Iridium LCC where I helped secure intentional recognition of satellite IMT-2000 spectrum in L-band.

I came to Deere & Co. nearly four years ago when they hired the first radio spectrum manager in the company’s more than 175-year history. When I started looking into the company, prior to my interview, I was amazed at what I found. They are really, really into GPS, and they use a worldwide correction signal from MSS to augment their location solution down to the centimeter level.

When I did visit the Deere facility in Torrance, California, for the interview, it hit me just how serious they were about GPS when my now boss explained to me that the company maintains its own network of GPS reference stations around the world to provide its own correction signal to our customers.

Catherine: What are the top 5 trends taking place in the agriculture industry both in the U.S. and globally?

Mark: The top five trends are:

· Greater accuracy, repeatability and pull-in/convergence for better satellite-based navigation.

· Greater Resolution in the Field. The spring input is measured down to the seed and we know with a great deal of accuracy, exactly where (and how deep) it was planted; the harvest however is measured in bushels/acres across the front of a large combine, we are working on ways to improve the resolution in the fall.

· More need for connectivity for fleet optimization and the logistics solutions for in the field and how to get between fields, as many farms are made up of non-contiguous acres.

· Using agronomic and machine data to improve on the precise placement of nutrients and seed to improve yield and ensure maximum land stewardship and improve producers’ efficiency and profitability.

· Automatic guidance adoption beyond established markets and advanced customers. Precision guidance has high adoption rates in the U.S., Canada, Australia and parts of Europe. There is room for growth elsewhere.

Catherine: What is meant by the term “precision agriculture”? Does satellite have a role and how does this relate to the business of John Deere?

Mark: Since 2001, Deere has been enabling domestic agricultural equipment with its StarFire™ precision farming system. The StarFire™ system employs receive-only vehicle mounted mobile earth stations. These earth stations receive L-band space-to-earth emissions from Inmarsat geostationary satellites that provide correctional data. This data augments the navigational information the StarFire™ terminals receive simultaneously from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. This augmented system enables the operators of domestic farming equipment to pinpoint their location to within +/- 2.5 centimeters.

This precise positioning capability determine, among other things, the amount of fertilizer and seed appropriate for a particular field and crop, has now found additional important uses to improve farming efficiency, including enabling farmers to manually record observations such as weed patches, crop appearance, and other field variables with remarkable precision. In addition, among other benefits, when coupled to the vehicle steering system through the Deere AutoTrac™ system it aids the operator to steer a more precise path when making repeated passes over the same track, thus greatly reducing crop and soil damage.

Catherine: From the perspective of John Deere, how do you view the convergence of MSS and FSS and what aspects of mobility are your most important to your business?

Mark: Deere tractors and implements both generate and consume tremendous amounts of data (and demand is increasing dramatically as we add new applications and services every year), so we are always evaluating new technologies for the in-motion transmission and reception of this data.

We are carefully monitoring a number of developments in the MSS and FSS communities as the historical line between the two classes of service gets blurred. Mobility has several aspects to us. First, it allows a customer to be in multiple places at once. Many producers operate over large territories and even in multiple states. Being able to login to a machine and see how and what it is doing from any computer is a huge help to both a farmer and a dealer in managing their business. A dealer can only login to a machine, if given permission by the owner.

Second, by connecting the machines, we are moving away from the old way of building bigger, faster, and stronger machines to the new way of enabling easier, smarter and more efficient ones.

Catherine: Are you strictly interested in L-band connectivity?

Mark: No. We are also users of VHF satellite spectrum and Orbcomm. Our Field Connect system uses sensors to monitor moisture levels and feeds data to a web-based interface to help farmers make timely irrigation decisions. Orbcomm provides the connectivity in areas where there is no cellular coverage.

The result is: 1) no more overwatering as studies show that 80 percent of producers overwater, which not only increases your operating costs, it can saturate the soil, reducing growth and yield, and increasing the chance of soil fungal disease and; 2) no more under-watering because obviously you want to get the most out of every drop.

Catherine: What’s the value of real time kinetics (RTK) in agriculture and what’s an example of how this is used?

Mark: The John Deere RTK activation is required to achieve the highest level of accuracy and repeatability at +/- 2.5 cm (1 in.). Users employing RTK can guarantee the same A-B guidance lines year in and year out from season to season no matter what the condition.

For example, potato producers require RTK repeatability to increase crop yield. Because satellite-based guidance systems drift every minute of every day, RTK removes drift from the equation. No matter when producers operate the machine and implement in the field, it always travels on the same guidance lines.

Catherine: How important is IoT to the current and future business of agriculture?

Mark: Very important. The “Internet of Things” in rural America includes not only smart meters and smart appliances, but also smart tractors, combines, and production systems. In fact, the rapid adoption of information technologies and services across the agricultural economy today is no less significant than was the introduction of mechanization to farming almost 100 years ago. Let me say that again. We expect the productivity gains from IoT to be as big as mechanization was.

Using these high precision techniques, advanced agricultural equipment and services now include technology that provides real-time agronomic data that can be analyzed to optimize the precise amount of seed, fertilizer and pesticides needed, reduce costs for fuel, labor, water, and identify best practices for fields in a given location.

We use Iridium modems to provide telematics connectivity for large customers in remote areas with no cellular coverage. This includes the ability to remote monitor the location of their machines as well as critical diagnostics and fuel consumption.

Catherine: Do you forsee any regulatory obstacles?

Mark: If we want to meet the goals of maximizing access to broadband, then we know at some point the economic case becomes untenable and public money is needed. We applaud the recent FCC decision to provide Connect America funding for standalone broadband, but more needs to be done. The public funding mechanisms such as the Universal Service Fund at the FCC and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) at USDA also need to adopt the IoT. This means they need to be modified to fund coverage for the population of modems in the IoT, not just population densities as in the past. Think about it, we now have combines in cropland making cell phone calls.

Catherine: How can the Mobile Satellite Users Association and its member’s best serve the interests of John Deere and the agriculture user community?

Mark: Robust and interference-free mobile satellite services are a key component of modern farming techniques and thus a priority for Deere and the larger agriculture user community. Deere therefore shares MSUA’s interest in preserving and protecting MSS from harmful interference or government initiatives that could reduce the amount of spectrum available to MSS.

Agriculture is a major sector in the U.S. economy (almost five percent of the nation’s annual GDP) and today modern agriculture business in the U.S. relies more and more on advanced “smart farming” technologies. These technologies are highly dependent on GPS-enabled high precision navigation techniques, including MSS signals, and data-enabled technologies which permit farming to centimeter precision and provide for real-time collection and analysis of agronomic and equipment data.

Using these high precision techniques, crop and equipment data can be analyzed to optimize the precise amount of seed, fertilizer and pesticides needed, reduce costs for fuel, labor, water, and identify best practices for fields in a given location. Although there are many government and nongovernment initiatives interested in making additional or alternative uses of MSS spectrum, “smart farming” techniques which make use of MSS will continue to evolve and proliferate.

Deere supports MSUA’s efforts to ensure continuing interference-free access to the satellite and other wireless services needed for navigation, communication and safety. We look forward to MSUA’s ongoing education and advocacy on these satellite issues, particularly highlighting their importance in the agricultural context. With regard to the MSUA itself, given the importance of the agricultural user community, I hope sometime in the future to see the association Advisory Committee include representation of agriculture along with other important sectors such as general aviation, maritime, oil and gas, and mining.

Catherine: Is there anything else you feel would be beneficial for MSUA and its members to know about the agriculture industry?

Mark: It makes sense for MSUA to include representation of the agriculture industry. Megatrends in the today’s global agricultural sector make smart farming techniques, along with the MSS and other services that they require, imperative. Farmers are compelled by long-term demand to sustain unprecedented high levels of productivity by carefully managing costs while increasing yields from a finite amount of land. World population is projected to climb from approximately 7 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2050. This means that every hour, there are an additional 9,000 new mouths to feed globally, which equates to roughly enough new people to fill Washington Nationals Park more than five times each and every day. As incomes around the world rise, animal protein becomes a larger component of average diets. This, in turn, generates greater demand for grains.

Environmental sustainability and compliance is also a growing challenge. The sector continues to expand: in 2013, 16.9 million full- and part-time jobs were related to agriculture—about 9.2 percent of total U.S. employment. Direct on-farm employment provided over 2.6 million of these jobs. Employment in related industries supported another 14.2 million jobs.

Featured Posts
bottom of page