Farmers are grappling with increasing demand for food, labor challenges, and tight profit margins. Both agricultural robotics startups and established equipment suppliers are offering help with a new generation of autonomous systems. At CES 2022, John Deere today announced a fully autonomous tractor that it said is ready for large-scale production.
Deere said the machine combines its 8R tractor, TruSet-enabled chisel plow, GPS guidance, and additional innovations. The autonomous tractor will be available to farmers later this year.
In 1837, John Deere, a blacksmith from Vermont, moved to Illinois, where he found that the local soil stuck to cast-iron plows, noted Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer of Deere & Co. He invented the first steel plow, and about 150 years later, the company he founded is enabling farmers to do more with less, Hindman said.
Deere has already developed agricultural automation, including the award-winning See & Spray system, which can differentiate between crops and weeds, and self-steering tractors. Today it showed a new slogan: “Nothing runs like a Deere. Autonomously.”
Goal is to feed a hungry world
“The autonomous tractor serves a specific purpose: feeding the world,” said Moline, Ill.-based Deere. “The global population is expected to grow from about 8 billion to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, increasing the global food demand by 50%.”
Farmers must feed this growing population with less available land and skilled labor, as well as deal with changing weather conditions and climate, variations in soil and water, and the presence of weeds and pests, the company added. All of these factors can affect a farmer's ability to work during the most critical times of the year.
“The average farmer is over 55 years old and works 12+ hour workdays,” noted Deanna Kovar, vice president of production and precision agriculture business at Deere. “Three critical challenges are finding skilled labor, getting the work done when it needs to be done, and doing it consistently to maximize crop yields.”
“Missing the optimal window to plant can reduce a harvest by as much as 1% per day,” she added. “Fully autonomous tractors can provide farmers flexibility at scale. They don't get tired or sick, can run all day or night, and free the farmer from the cab to focus on other tasks.”
Autonomous tractor designed for precision
The autonomous tractor has six pairs of stereo cameras, which enables 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance, said Deere. Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network, which classifies each pixel in about 100 milliseconds.
Deere trained its machine learning systems on more than 50 million images. “Robots must perceive and make good decisions,” said Willy Pell, senior director of autonomous systems at Deere. “Machine learning running on GPUs [graphics processing units] intepret the inputs.”
The self-driving tractor also continuously checks its position relative to a geofence, ensuring it is operating where it is supposed to, and it is accurate to less than an inch (2.5 cm), said Kovar.
Redundant safety systems include RGB and depth, and the neural network classifies each pixel on NVIDIA processors, said Pell.
“If the system encounters an object it doesn't recognize, the machine stops,” he explained. “Unlike an autonomous vehicle on the road, we don't need to worry about getting rear-ended when it stops, but the 40,000-lb. machine must be safe.”
John Deere harvests data for farmers
To use the autonomous tractor, farmers only need to transport the machine to a field and configure it for autonomous operation, said Julian Sanchez, director of emerging technology at Deere. Farmers can swipe from left to right on the John Deere Operations Center Mobile app to start the machine.
Once the machine is working, the farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks, while remotely monitoring the machine's status from any mobile device.
The John Deere Operations Center provides access to live video, images, data, and metrics. This allows a farmer to adjust speed, depth, and more. The system will send remote notification of any job-quality anomalies or machine health issues so farmers can make adjustments to optimize the performance of the machine.
John Deere's self-driving tractors can place each seed in a straight row at the ideal distance, regardless of topography and the speed driven, said Jorge Heraud, vice president of autonomy and automation. They can also save up to 80% of sprays and determine the degree of a crop's ripeness during harvesting, increasing profitability, productivity, and sustainability, he said.
In addition, the operations center collects data on job execution from each pass for planning decisions, said Sanchez. He noted that Deere recently acquired companies including Blue River, Bear Flag Robotics, and NavCom and has worked on the ADAR for 20 years.
Deere at CES 2022
John Deere said its will be on display from Jan. 5 to 7, 2022 at Booth CP-14 in Central Plaza at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). The CES exhibit will also showcase cutting-edge technologies that farmers are using today, such as artificial intelligence, GPS, and more.
On Wednesday, Jan. 5 at 9 a.m., Hindman will speak on a panel titled “Frontiers in Business AI” in Room N251 in the LVCC's North Hall.
At 3 p.m. tomorrow, Aubrey Donnellan, co-founder and chief operating officer of Bear Flag Robotics, Aubrey Donnellan, will speak on a WIRED panel about “The Long Road to Fully Autonomous Driving.”
On Thursday, Jan. 6 at 10:20 a.m., Kovar, will speak on a CES panel on “Seizing the Opportunity of Tech Innovation With 5G” in LVCC Room N262.
In addition, Deere plans to hold a series of “Tireside Chats” at its booth, exploring key technologies and how they impact agriculture:
- Wednesday, Jan. 5 from 3:30 to 3:45 p.m. PT: “Driving (Autonomously) With Purpose”
- Thursday, Jan. 6 from 11:00 to 11:15 p.m. PT: “This Isn't Old Macdonald's Farm”
- Thursday, Jan. 6 from 3:00 to 3:15 p.m. PT: “Swipe to Begin Farming”
The company said all of the content and demos from Dits CES booth will also be available on its conference microsite: www.JohnDeere.com/CES.
“Autonomy is no longer just a concept or a demo; it's real and helping farmers today,” Hindman said. “This is the beginning of the transformation of agriculture.”
About the Author
Eugene Demaitre is editorial director of Robotics 24/7. Prior to joining Peerless Media, he was a senior editor at Robotics Business Review and The Robot Report. Demaitre has also worked for BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, and TechTarget. He has participated in numerous robotics-related webinars, podcasts, and events worldwide.
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