Theft of GPS receivers and in-cab terminals is at an all-time high. But what can be done to keep your precision farming kit safe and secure from the grip of the light-fingered? Geoff Ashcroft finds out.
More and more farmers and contractors, and even dealers, are becoming victims of GPS equipment theft, as opportunists take advantage of insecure farm yards, open machinery sheds or kit left unattended overnight, to help themselves to these high-value items.
Most recently, theft has transgressed into armrest-mounted terminals, with wiring harnesses cut through in the process of removal. The impact on businesses is dramatic, and with integrated control systems on most modern kit, operational capability often goes out of the window along with the terminal. And it has a serious knock-on effect, with time-dependant field work being delayed by a number of days with considerable financial consequences.
Rebecca Davidson, NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist explains; “Thieves clearly know what they are looking for and we are getting reports of determined criminal gangs using drones to scope out farms, or carefully planning routes around CCTV surveillance to avoid being caught.
“The feeling of being watched and targeted is adding to feelings of anxiety for those living and working in isolated areas.”
Police experts from the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS) have reported that many of these thefts are being orchestrated by organised criminal gangs emanating from Eastern Europe.
“Police partners in Europe say this is not just a UK problem and other countries have been particularly hard hit,” she says. “The concern is that tighter enforcement in these countries and the burgeoning black market for GPS systems internationally, may have pushed the issue across the channel.”
So what can be done to make GPS receivers less attractive? By their very nature, they receive signals, rather than transmit, making their location harder to track.
As the main insurer of the UK’s farmers, NFU Mutual says it is working with police and tractor manufacturers to tackle this worrying new crime trend. But it is a process unlikely to change overnight.
“Multi-layered security systems are currently the best deterrents,” says Mrs Davidson. “Remove receivers and screens from sight where possible, or make access extremely difficult.”
If offered the chance to purchase second hand GPS equipment, the best advice is to check the authenticity of the serial number with your local dealer – though in most instances, serial numbers will only be held on a database of stolen equipment if they have been reported.
“Treat most online auction sites with caution,” says Mrs Davidson. “Unless you can be shown proof of purchase, there is a good chance you will be inadvertently be buying stolen equipment. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
John Deere’s advice has always been to remove and store its displays and receivers in a safe and secure place when not being used. No surprise really, given the ease with which a StarFire receiver could be swapped from roof to roof for the benefit of sharing technology across a tractor and harvester fleet, where GPS is not required on every machine.
Currently, Deere’s StarFire receivers cannot be blocked remotely after being stolen, although any stolen units can be flagged in the company’s online StellarSupport system and prevented from being reactivated or upgraded once the existing licence runs out.
Owners can also contact their local dealership to check if a StarFire serial number is on the database, which includes a marker for stolen equipment. However, not all thefts of the company’s equipment are reported and the system cannot provide proof that equipment offered for sale online is legitimate.
John Deere recommends that if you are unfortunate to have any of its GPS equipment stolen, it should be reported to the dealer so that it can at least be logged. The company says its PIN code system introduced in 2019 is not a theft prevention measure, but rather a deterrent to thieves, who without the pin code would be in possession of a non-functional piece of equipment.
Deere says its newer StarFire 6000 integrated receivers fitted to model year 2020 7R and 8R tractors, along with the 2021 model of X9 combine harvester are more theft-proof, as a result of being built into the cab roof. These components are also non-functional, as well as non-transferable, if removed from the machine to which they are assigned.
Nottingham-based Howard Marshall Engineering has manufactured after-market bolt-on locking brackets for several manufacturers.
The company’s Howard Marshall explains; “Our receiver bracket uses a pin and padlock to secure the dome. It is a deterrent against the opportunist thief, but those who are determined to steal are likely to go equipped.”
Case IH, with its precision farming partner Trimble, is working towards software updates for existing equipment that will feature increased security enhancements. In the meantime, those investing in new kit might like to know that some of it includes advanced measures to discourage theft.
Locking roof brackets are fitted to some models and the firm has the ability to blacklist any stolen kit through serial number reporting. This prevents activation and renders the unit useless for all but basic operation, instantly devaluing the unit on the open market.
The AFS Connect package on the latest Case IH Magnum range sees every machine connected via Case IH’s telematics systems. It also includes a recording of the serial number details of installed guidance equipment.
Cab security has been improved and includes full central locking using a bespoke key fob, individually assigned to each tractor. And activating the in-cab display requires interaction with the paired key fob. However, this functionality remains an extra cost option.
Fendt would appear to have taken a more considered approach, by mounting its GPS receivers within the cab roof.
Fendt national sales manager Martin Hamer explains; “With wider acceptance and the lower cost of GPS when specified new, we have sacrificed portability for invisibility. To the casual observer, you would not know if a Fendt tractor was equipped with any GPS equipment.
“This creates a fully sealed, weather-proof installation with all wiring neatly integrated inside the cab,” he says.
Having been a victim of GPS theft, Edward du Val of Apsley Farms near Andover, Hants, is keen to employ security methods to safeguard equipment when it is working away from home.
“We do remove domes and screens where possible,” he says. “But we have also introduced remote monitoring of some of our equipment too, through battery powered home security cameras fitted to the machines.”
He says that fitting cameras to the booms of his materials handling excavators provides a high-level view of the cab through an app, offering a good level of remote security. He also gets notifications should the machine be approached, having set-up motion zones through the app which are triggered by intruders.
“The app lets me sound an alarm, in addition to getting an automatic video recording triggered by an intruder’s close proximity to a parked machine,” he says. “By adding a sim card-equipped 3G/4G modem to the machine, I can have direct access to the camera through its app 24-hours/day. It is also handy for lone-worker monitoring too, so I can check on the safety of employees.
“Not only is this a good deterrent, but video evidence does give the police something to go on,” he says.
Mr du Val says he is working on applying a similar system to his tractors and harvesting machinery, for additional protection when kit is working away from its base.