At a press conference during the CES 2022 show in January, agriculture equipment maker John Deere announced a major advance for precision farming in the form of a self-driving autonomous tractor. Available later this year, the fully autonomous driverless machine 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. This determines if the machine should continue to move or stop when an obstacle is detected.
Of course, John Deere is 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.
|Read how John Deere is using Intel's artificial intelligence technology to improve welding processes.|
“Through sensors and robotics we’ve already automated many parts,” said Deanna Kovar, John Deere’s vice president. "But this is different. 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.”
According to the company, the autonomous 8R 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. Farmers can spend up to 18 hours a day in the field and are making countless decisions without knowing the impact of those decisions for weeks or months. “It is physically and mentally exhausting,” said John Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman.
Now, with no one in the cab of the tractor, 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. And if there is something in the field that the tractor is not sure about, it will stop and alert the farmer.
The autonomous tractor is emerging at an important time in history, Deere officials point out, 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 a growing population, farmers need to increase agricultural productivity by 60% to 70% using the same amount of farm land. “Farmers need technology to help them do more with less…so that we can all put food on the table,” Hindman said.
Indeed, the 8R tractor can solve some of these problems. But the move to a truly autonomous farm is a five-stage journey, said Boaz Bachar, CEO and co-founder of Fieldin, a provider of proprietary sensors and data management tools to seamlessly connect many different pieces of machinery in the field. The 8R is applicable to large commodity crops like corn and soy, but there are many other machines that are focused on more complex farming fields for fruit, vegetables, and nuts, he said.
Regardless of the crop, the journey to autonomous farming starts with digitizing the day-to-day process of the farm, using sensors to collect data from machinery to gain visibility. Stage two is gaining data insight through industry benchmarks. Stage three is when autonomous vehicles can be deployed. In fact, in November, Fieldin acquired a company called Midnight Robotics, a provider of autonomous driving technology in agriculture. “This acquisition will allow us to potentially transform any machine into an autonomous vehicle in the next few years,” Bachar said.
Stage four of the farm transformation journey leverages artificial intelligence (AI) for predictive modeling. And at stage five, it’s time 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 said, noting that the same is true for the farm of the future.
|Watch this Take Five report on the use of industrial sensors and automation at Bouchaine Vineyards.|
Deere officials agree that the addition of AI, machine learning, and cloud computing can set farmers up for future success. And it’s worth noting that, in 2020, Fieldin was selected as one of four agtech companies to participate in Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group’s Startup Collaborator program. This group is representative of the many new partnerships developing to usher in the next-generation of precision agriculture.
The big question now is: why did John Deere, an agriculture equipment manufacturer, make this announcement at CES, a consumer electronics show? “The transformation of agriculture impacts us all,” said Hindman. “That is why John Deere is at CES. The future of agriculture starts now.”