How John Deere plans to build a world of fully

How John Deere plans to build a world of fully autonomous farming by 2030

Can John Deere become one of the leading AI and robotics companies in the world alongside Tesla and the tech giants from Silicon Valley in the next ten years?

That notion may seem at odds with the general perception of the 185-year-old company as a heavy metal manufacturer of tractors, bulldozers and lawn mowers painted in the distinctive green and yellow colors.

But that’s exactly what the company sees in its future, according to Jorge Heraud, vice president of automation and autonomy at Deere, based in Moline, Illinois.

The autonomous 8R is the culmination of Deere’s nearly two decades of strategic planning and investment in automation, data analysis, GPS guidance, IoT connectivity and software development. While much of this R&D is in-house grown, the company has also been looking to make acquisitions and partner with agtech startups to garner both expertise and talent.

“This stems from our recognition that technology will drive value creation and increase productivity, profitability and sustainability for farmers,” said Heraud.

While Deere made waves at CES and intrigued the investment community, Jefferies equity research analyst Stephen Volkmann said, “We’re very, very, very early in this process.”

“Today, the total global fleet of autonomous Deere tractors is less than 50,” he added. And while Deere’s goal is to have a fully autonomous row crop growing system by 2030, Volkmann said, “In Wall Street times, that’s an eternity.”

For now, Deere is creating value and profits with established automated systems that can be retrofitted to its existing tractors, such as B. GPS-based self-steering and precision seeding that measures how deep and how far apart to plant. Those steps need to be in place, Volkmann said, before you can make them fully autonomous.

The autonomous 8R represents a giant leap in current agtech, not to mention the marketing advantage. “Before the launch at CES, everyone thought [full autonomy] was pie in the sky,” said Scott Shearer, chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Bioengineering at Ohio State University.

Around the world, Shearer said there are likely 30 different autonomous tractor projects in the works, though none are commercially available. “But when Deere, with 60% of the tractor market share in North America, comes out with one, that’s when the reality begins,” Shearer said.

This reality reflects Deere’s autonomy strategy. “The AI ​​we’re using involves computer vision and machine learning,” said Heraud, a science in full swing at Silicon Valley startup Blue River Technology, which Deere bought for $305 million in 2017 – a Deal that also brought in Blue River co-founder Managing Director Heraud. Blue River’s “see and spray” robotic platform uses dozens of sophisticated cameras and processors to distinguish weeds from crops when applying herbicides.

Attached to the autonomous tractor is a 120-foot-wide boom equipped with six pairs of stereo cameras that can “see” an obstacle in the field — be it a rock, a log, or a person — and determine its size and relative distance. The images captured by the cameras are run through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in approximately 100 milliseconds and decides whether the tractor should continue or stop.

“We curated hundreds of thousands of images from different farm locations and under different weather and light conditions,” Heraud said, “to allow the tractor to use machine learning to understand what it’s seeing and react accordingly.” This ability also allows the farmer, instead of sitting in the tractor, to control it remotely while doing something else.”

Heraud was referring to autonomous driving, another piece of Deere’s agtech puzzle that was pieced together when the company bought Bear Flag Robotics for $250 million last year. Bear Flag’s autonomous navigation system, also a Silicon Valley startup launched in 2017, can be retrofitted to existing tractors, in this case Deere’s latest 8R model, launched in 2020.

Since the CES launch, Deere has acquired AI assets from two other agtech pioneers. In April, Deere formed a joint venture with GUSS Automation, which has developed semi-autonomous sprayers for orchards and vineyards. Using AI and IoT, multiple GUSS (Global Unmanned Spray System) sprayers can be remotely controlled by a single operator, with up to eight sprayers being able to run simultaneously from a laptop. GUSS can identify trees and determine how much to spray on each one, regardless of canopy height or size.

A month later, Deere announced the acquisition of numerous patents and other intellectual property rights from AI startup Light, according to The Robot Report. Light’s depth perception platform enhances existing stereo vision systems by using additional cameras that mimic the structure of a human eye to provide a more accurate 3D view. Deere plans to integrate Light’s platform into future versions of its autonomous farm equipment.

To keep a close eye on the research and development of other agtech companies, Deere established a Startup Collaborator program to test innovative technologies with customers and dealers without a more formal business relationship. “The hope is that they find the diamonds before they become obvious [competitors] and keep them in the herd,” Volkmann said. Current crops include Four Growers, a Pittsburgh-based startup that offers robotic harvesting and analysis for high-value crops, starting with greenhouse tomatoes, and Philadelphia-based Burro, which produces small, autonomous Robots that can assist farm workers in various transport tasks.

Not surprisingly, Deere’s biggest competitors have also developed automation and autonomy for their farm machines. AGCO, whose brands include Massey Ferguson and Fendt, “has been automating farm operations since the mid-1990s,” said Seth Crawford, senior vice president and general manager of the Duluth, Georgia-based company’s precision farming and digital division. “We’re at a stage that we call supervised autonomy, where we still have someone in the cabin of the plane,” he said. “The buzz revolves around fully autonomous operations, but where farmers are willing to pay for automation is feature by feature.”

While Deere is focused on bringing full autonomy to its own farm equipment, AGCO is eyeing the broader aftermarket, Crawford said. “In the summer of 2023 we will offer a performance-enhancing retrofit kit for machines of several brands,” he said. “Where others say we’ll bring you autonomy with a half-million dollar tractor,” he said, referring to the price of Deere’s 8R, “we have kits that allow you to do that with your existing fleet to do. We see a huge opportunity with the installed base where farmers want to use technology to improve their results and yet not convert their entire fleet and make this massive investment.”

In 2016, Case IH, a subsidiary of CNH Industrial headquartered in London, rolled out the so-called autonomous concept vehicle to the Farm Progress Show. The sleek, cab-less prototype tractor hinted at the idea of ​​autonomy at the time. Fast forward six years to September’s Farm Progress Show, where Case IH showcased its Trident 5550 autonomous applicator.