'All of a sudden no GPS': Last week's solar storm created headaches for some farmers

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Early Friday afternoon, Bobby Donovan had a problem as she was seeding her pea crop.

The seeding tank had just been filled, and the Vulcan County farmer was about to get back at it.

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“I’d been seeding all day just fine and, all of a sudden, no GPS,” she said Monday.

She phoned a contact with a farm equipment supplier who informed Donovan that her GPS was down because of last week’s solar storm, which reportedly affected GPS on farm machinery across Western Canada as well as some parts of the United States.

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The issue took a bit of time to fix, but she ended up using a different satellite that sort of worked.

“It was really creepy, because when we even got it to sort of work, it would either overlap by a foot or two feet, or it would miss a foot or two feet, so you had to be constantly watching and adjusting it as you went,” said Donovan.

The GPS on her 2016 tractor was back to normal on Saturday and has been fine since.

“It was definitely off its rocker,” said Donovan.

A farmer prepares his crop for the upcoming growing season near Strathmore, Alberta, east of Calgary on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Grady Brown, an Agriterra Equipment product specialist, fielded six or seven calls about the issue — including the one from Donovan — and said it was likely widespread. Many farmers knew in advance that there would be difficulty connecting to GPS due to the solar storm, he added.

“We just have to live without some of these high-precision technologies for a day or two,” he said, confirming that by Saturday things were back to normal.

GPS helps make seeding more efficient and saves money, said Brown, estimating that the average loss to farmers from not using GPS is roughly 15 per cent.

“That can be pretty high dollars when you’re a big farm,” he said.

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Farmers can pay a subscription fee to connect to more satellites, and it was the smaller, more “budget-minded” farmers who use the three or so free satellites who were most heavily disrupted by the solar storm, said Brown.

Travis Anderson of Outlook Guidance, which sells aftermarket GPS systems for agricultural equipment, confirmed it was older technology running on the free satellites that was most affected.

He fielded hundreds of calls last weekend about the issue, including with dealers who could have had 20 or 30 customers experiencing difficulties with their GPS.

“There’s probably thousands of units that are affected,” he said.

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