Deere Says Driverless Tractors Ready for the Field

John Deere said earlier this month it will start commercial delivery this year of technology that enables a tractor to till a field without an operator in the cab.

The company plans a low-volume launch delivering systems for 12 to 20 machines, then scaling up, Jahmy Hindman, Deere’s chief technology officer, told Reuters. The company is weighing whether to sell the technology, lease it, or offer it to farmers in a subscription package that could allow for upgrades as hardware and software evolve, he said.

The cameras and computers for automated tilling can be installed on an existing tractor and tiller machine in a day, Hindman said.

Deere and other tractor brands have been on a steady march toward autonomous driving since the introduction of GPS guided steering (autotrac) was introduced in the mid 1990s. In recent years, tractors have added automated headland turning, machine-syncing that connects multiple machines in the same field, and real-time cloud connectivity. Most of the hardware has existed for fully autonomous planting or cultivating a field for years, but full autonomy remained elusive.

There have been start-ups working on autonomous farming and pilot projects from legacy agricultural companies in the past, but no one has widely commercialized a fully autonomous in-field machine that can perform multiple tasks.

The significant new technology in this tractor is the addition of stereo cameras that scan in all directions, combined with cloud-based machine learning and artificial intelligence to understand what the cameras are seeing. When the tractor encounters an image that is not identifiable from the machine learning database, the tractor will stop and alert the farmer.

The farmer can address the problem from his or her smartphone and send the tractor back to work or resolve the problem some other way. This type of situational awareness is what existing GPS guidance technology lacked.

Deere has been testing fully autonomous tractors for three to four years, Hindman said. The company’s likely next target for automation is spraying, Hindman said.

Sources: Reuters, Janzen Ag Law Blog