Can John Deere become one of the world’s leading AI and robotics companies alongside Tesla and Silicon Valley tech giants in the next decade?
This statement may seem incongruous with the general perception of the 185-year-old company as a heavy-metal maker of tractors, bulldozers and lawn mowers painted in the iconic green and yellow colors.
But that’s what the company sees in its future, according to Jorge Heraud, vice president of automation and autonomy for Deere, based in Moline, Ill., an overview of which was presented at Consumer Electronics Show last January in Las Vegas, where Deere unveiled its fully autonomous 8R farm tractor, driven by artificial intelligence rather than a farmer driving it.
The autonomous 8R is the culmination of nearly two decades of Deere strategic planning and investment in automation, data analysis, GPS guidance, Internet of Things connectivity and software engineering. Although much of this R&D has been developed internally, the company has also multiplied acquisitions and partnerships with agtech startups, harvesting know-how as well as talent.
“It comes from our realization that technology will drive value creation and increase farmer productivity, profitability and sustainability,” Heraud said.
As Deere caused a stir at CES and intrigued the investment community, Jefferies equity research analyst Stephen Volkmann said, “We’re very, very, very early in this process.”
“The total global fleet of Deere autonomous tractors is less than 50 today,” he added. And even though Deere’s goal is to have a fully autonomous row-crop farming system by 2030, Volkmann said, “in Wall Street time, that’s an eternity.”
Currently, Deere is creating value and profits through well-established automated systems that can be retrofitted to its existing tractors, such as GPS-based Auto Guidance and Precision Seeding that measures depth and distance to plant. . Those steps need to be in place, Volkmann said, before they can be given full autonomy.
The standalone 8R represents a giant leap forward in today’s agtech, not to mention the marketing benefit. “Before its introduction at CES, everyone thought [full autonomy] was pie in the sky,” said Scott Shearer, chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University.
Worldwide, Shearer said, there are likely 30 different autonomous tractor projects in the works, though none are commercially available. “But when Deere, with 60 percent of the tractor market in North America, comes out with one, that’s when reality sets in,” Shearer said.
This reality reflects Deere’s autonomy strategy. “The AI we use involves computer vision and machine learning,” said Heraud, a science that was well advanced at Silicon Valley startup Blue River Technology, which Deere bought in 2017 for $305 million. dollars – a deal that also brought in Blue River co-founder and CEO Héraud. Blue River’s robotic “see and spray” platform uses dozens of sophisticated cameras and processors to distinguish weeds from crop plants when applying herbicides.
Attached to the self-driving 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 transmitted through a deep neural network which classifies each pixel in about 100 milliseconds and decides whether the tractor should continue moving or stop.
“We curated hundreds of thousands of images from different farm sites and in various weather and lighting conditions,” Heraud said, “so that with machine learning, the tractor can understand what it’s seeing. and react accordingly. This capability also allows the farmer, instead of being in the tractor, to operate it remotely while doing other things.”
Heraud was referring to autonomous driving, another piece of Deere’s agtech puzzle that came together when it bought Bear Flag Robotics last year for $250 million. Also a Silicon Valley startup, launched in 2017, Bear Flag’s autonomous navigation system can be retrofitted to existing tractors, in this case Deere’s latest 8R model, which hit the market in 2020.
Since rolling out CES, Deere has acquired the AI assets of two other agtech pioneers. In April, Deere formed a joint venture with GUSS Automation, which designed 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, running up to eight sprayers simultaneously from a laptop computer. GUSS can detect trees and determine how much to spray each, regardless of canopy height or size.
A month later, Deere announced the acquisition of numerous patents and other intellectual properties from startup AI Light, according to The Robot Report. Light’s depth perception platform enhances existing stereo vision systems by using additional cameras, mimicking the structure of a human eye to enable more accurate 3D vision. Deere plans to integrate Light’s platform into future versions of its autonomous agricultural equipment.
To keep tabs on other agtech R&D, Deere has established a Startup Collaborator program to test innovative technologies with customers and dealers without more formal business relationships. “The hope is that they find the diamonds before they become obvious to [competitors] and keep them in the fold,” Volkmann said. Among the current crop are Four Growers, a Pittsburgh-based startup that provides 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 conveying tasks.
Unsurprisingly, Deere’s biggest competitors have also developed automation and autonomy in its agricultural machinery. AGCO, whose brands include Massey Ferguson and Fendt, “has been automating farming operations since the mid-1990s,” said Seth Crawford, senior vice president and general manager of the Duluth-based company’s precision and digital agriculture division. , Georgia. “We’re at a stage we call supervised autonomy, where we still have someone in the cabin of the machine,” he said. “The buzz is about fully autonomous operations, but where farmers are willing to pay for automation is feature by feature.”
While Deere is focused on adding full autonomy to its own farm equipment, AGCO is targeting the broader retrofit market, Crawford said. “In the summer of 2023, we will have a performance-enhancing upgrade kit available for multiple brands of machines,” he said. “Where others say we bring you self-sufficiency with a half-million-dollar tractor,” he said, alluding to Deere’s 8R price, “we have kits that allow you to do this with your existing fleet. We see a huge opportunity with the installed base, where farmers want to adopt the technology to improve their bottom line, but don’t want to flip their entire fleet and make this massive investment.”
In 2016, Case IH, a subsidiary of CNH Industrial, headquartered in London, went to the Farm Progress Show with what it called the autonomous concept vehicle. The elegant prototype tractor, without a driver’s cab, alluded to the vision of autonomy at the time. Fast forward six years to September’s Farm Progress Show, where Case IH unveiled its Trident 5550 stand-alone applicator.