The world-renowned farming and agriculture equipment maker John Deere made headlines when it announced a major advancement for precision farming in the form of a self-driving autonomous tractor at a press conference during the CES 2022 earlier this month. The vehicle manufacturer revealed that its fully autonomous driverless machine will be available later this year and combines Deere’s 8R tractor, its TruSet tillage technology coupled with a chisel plow, GPS guidance, and other advanced technologies, including six pairs of stereo cameras enabling 360-degree obstacle detection and calculation of distance, and a deep neural network that classifies each pixel of each image in 100 milliseconds. The company claims that the neural network is essential to determine if the machine continues to move or stops when an obstacle is detected.
This is not John Deere’s first foray into automated technology as it is already known for its innovative farm equipment that has added automation in the form of functions such as AutoTrac turn automation for hands-free guidance of end-of-pass turns, and remote management through AgLogic, which uses advanced reporting to analyze machine and operator performance.
At the press conference to launch the autonomous tractor, Deanna Kovar, John Deere’s vice president of the production and precision Ag business, was bullish about the equipment’s prospects, saying “Through sensors and robotics we’ve already automated many parts.The autonomous tractor will open so many doors for agriculture. Most autonomous vehicles, like cars, focus on getting from point a to point b safely. In agriculture it’s more than moving from one spot to another. The tractors in the field have to follow a precise path and do a specific job. The autonomous 8R tractor is one giant robot, performing its job with accuracy and without human intervention. It’s the next revolution in agriculture.”
John Deere claims that the autonomous 8R tractor solves three critical challenges that farmers currently face: the lack of skilled labor, the demand to get work done when it needs to get done based on soil conditions, and the ability to consistently maximize crop yield. The company underlined the challenges that farmers face, revealing that farmers can spend up to 18 hours a day in the field and are making countless decisions without knowing the impact of those decisions until weeks or months. “It is physically and mentally exhausting,” stated Jahmy Hindman, CTO of John Deere.
Using the new 8R tractor technology, the farmer simply swipes the app on the phone to start the tractor while collecting data on how much of the field is tilled or checking the fuel level, for example. All this is accomplished without needing anyone in the cab of the tractor and if there is something in the field that the tractor is not sure about, it will stop and alert the farmer.
John Deere was also quick to point out that the autonomous tractor is emerging at an important time in history, noting that the world’s population is expected to grow from 8 billion to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, increasing global food demand by 50%. To reduce hunger and serve this growing population, farmers will need to increase agricultural productivity by 60% to 70% all while using the same area of farmland as at present. “Farmers need technology to help them do more with less…so that we can all put food on the table,” Hindman added.
Although the 8R tractor can solve some of these problems, the move to a truly autonomous farm is a five-stage journey, declared Boaz Bachar, CEO and co-founder of Fieldin, a provider of proprietary sensors and data management tools used to seamlessly connect many different pieces of machinery in the field. While the 8R tractor is applicable to large commodity crops like corn and soy, there are, however, many other machines that are focused on more complex farming fields for fruit, vegetables, and nuts, he said.
Irrespective of the crop, the pathway towards autonomous farming must start with digitizing the day-to-day process of the farm, using sensors—more specifically Fieldin sensors—to collect data from machinery to gain visibility. Stage two consists of gaining data insight through industry benchmarks while stage three is the moment when autonomous vehicles can be deployed. To this end, Fieldin acquired a company called Midnight Robotics, a provider of autonomous driving technology in agriculture in November of last year with Bachar declaring that “This acquisition will allow us to potentially transform any machine into an autonomous vehicle in the next few years”
Stage four of the farm transformation journey requires the leveraging of artificial intelligence for predictive modeling while stage five signals the need to reimagine the design of the farm itself. “One hundred years ago, growers needed to restructure the way they grow to fit the capabilities of the machines,” Bachar stated, suggesting that the same will hold true for the farm of the future.
John Deere was also quick to agree that the addition of AI, machine learning and cloud computing may become essential to guarantee future success for the farming industry. Eyebrows were raised as to why John Deere, an agriculture equipment manufacturer, made this announcement at CES, a consumer electronics show but Jahny Hindman was happy to provide the answer, stating “The transformation of agriculture impacts us all. That is why John Deere is at CES. The future of agriculture starts now.”