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Tractors won't be fully autonomous anytime soon — but not because they can't be

Farming is increasingly automated and repeatable, thanks to decades of innovation at John Deere, but there's still a long way to go.

Tractors won't be fully autonomous anytime soon — but not because they can't be

John Deere's 8RX tractor seeing a field with robotic precision.

Photo: John Deere

Have you ever had a 43,000-pound tractor drive over your head at full speed?

As part of the all-digital festivities of this year's CES, John Deere seeded VR headsets to reporters to show off that much of what the company invests its time in these days is far more high-tech than the average smart TV or speaker you'd expect to see roaming the halls of the convention. The company's CTO, Jahmy Hindman, and VP of Production and Precision Ag Production Systems Deanna Kovar walked me through a virtual demonstration of one of its 8RX tractors autonomously moving through a field, perfectly planting seeds at the right distance and depth, thousands of times over.

Even before the pandemic, the farming labor pool was shrinking in the U.S., meaning farmers needed to do more with fewer hands. Deere has been pushing autonomy for years, more recently diving into machine learning and computer vision to help create machines that can produce more food for a growing global population on the same amount of land. But as tractors and other farming equipment become increasingly complex mobile computers that can fend for themselves, what's left for the actual farmer to do? A fair amount, according to Deere.

Protocol recently spoke with Hindman and Kovar about the future of Deere, producing food during a pandemic and the role of the farmer in actually farming America's crops.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deere has worked to create fully autonomous machines without the need for a farmer in the cab. How far away is that from being the norm, and what will farmers make of it?

Hindman: We're just continuing to progress the state of automation in the equipment, and we think about it sort of as a continuum. At the end of the continuum is fully autonomous, and we're getting very close to that. I think there's two things that keep an operator in the operator station today, technically, and then there's a psychological component.

The technical reasons to keep them in the operator station today are functional safety: They are the de facto perception system. We do have technology we're working on that you're familiar with, I'm sure, from the automotive industry. That's developing perception capabilities that remove the need for the operator to be in the station from a safety perspective.

The second one is sort of unique for us in the ag industry: We need to be able to also provide confidence to the farmer that that planter behind the tractor is doing what it needs to do, because if it didn't plant the crop the way they needed it to be planted, that's a big problem. They're going to live with that for a while, and it really significantly impacts their business. And that's also a perception problem; it's just focusing the technology on a different aspect of the need.

We've seen advances in GPUs, cameras and component development. My perception is we're really close to being able to technically take operators out of the operator station. At some point, [that'll be] easier for us to do in the ag industry and some applications than others. Some of our applications are really difficult, so I think you'll see it creeping into the industry in the simpler tasks that a farmer has to do before it gets adopted in some of the more complex tasks.

Kovar: I definitely think farmers will be ready for autonomy, because finding labor in rural America is getting harder and harder. The key will be for us to be able to maintain or improve that level of precision, as well as timeliness and productivity. So it's all got to come together.

It's not just about getting from A to B: It's about getting the job done in that precise way, but also at scale and at the productivity they need to hit their timing windows. We're working every day to automate more and more on that path, but there's a lot of things that have to come together for it to really work. And there's a lot of jobs: what this planter does, it doesn't just drop seed, it has to move residue away, it has to make a trench, it has to put the seed down, it has to put the dirt on it, has to firm it up. And there's still a lot of automation to get done to make sure that that one time a year I plant, that I did a good job.

These machines are fantastically complex now. I understand customers not wanting any downtime and so how valuable predictive maintenance can be, but what are Deere's thoughts on creating a completely closed system? With the referendum in Massachusetts on extending right-to-repair for machines like Deere's in mind, is there a situation where people can repair or modify their Deere machines that they've paid for?

Hindman: We do make tools available to customers [that are] very similar to the tools that we make available to dealers. We call it Service Advisor; it is the the technician portal that allows you to electronically connect to a machine so that you can get the same diagnostics that you would get as a dealer technician: service manuals, service parts, all of those things are made available to customers in order to support their own equipment, should they choose to do that. And that's still an important part of many growers' operations; they want to be able to do some of that work themselves.

The flip side of that is there are parts of the equipment that are regulated, like the emissions components on diesel engines. Because they're regulated, they need to be fixed in a certain way with certain parts in order to maintain the intentionality around the regulation, as it was delivered. I think the interesting part of your question for me is in the autonomy space; do regulations force more of that moving forward? I think that's a very open space at the moment. It's new ground for everybody. It's going to firm up over the next five to 10 years, I think, and I suspect there will be parts of that that will be regulated.

How is 2021 shaping up for you?

Hindman: Every farmer is going to plant their field this year, just like they did last year. It's just a process that goes on. And so we support that in any way possible. Part of that support is a technology answer. So Remote Display Access as an example — the use of that technology, pre-COVID, was not nearly as great. We've seen a 3x change in that since COVID. I think what we're seeing is an appetite for technology that helps people navigate the turbulent waters of a global pandemic. And I think that genie's out of the bottle: I don't think we're going to see people return to the way things were, I think, in the case of remote display access. I think we're going to continue to see high usage rates even once the pandemic is behind us.

Kovar: What's also great about agriculture is, this equipment lasts for 25 or 30 years. It's going to the field every season, every year, and at John Deere, we're excited about how we can continue to help farmers make the equipment that they have in their shed better. Every farm is different, every fleet is different, and we're bringing new technologies out every season to help automate more, and make [farming] more precise and more productive. But every farmer has an opportunity to adopt that next technology, whether they're not connected yet, or whether they're not using GPS and AutoTrac yet, or maybe they're highly technologically advanced, and they're ready for what's coming out.

Agriculture adoption curves allow people to stair-step their way through all of this technology and say, "What's the next thing that I can bring on my farm and deliver?" That's this experimentation and scientific approach to agriculture of farmers always wanting to try something new on their farm that can help them do even better next year.

So where is the average American farmer when it comes to tech adoption?

Kovar: I would say there's phases of technology that we've had in agriculture over the last two decades. You mentioned self-driving: Probably 75% of the acres in North America are planted with an AutoTrac-type system — highly adopted technologies, because they've been around for 20 years, and are very prevalent. Connectivity continues to grow in adoption. We've got 230,000 connected machines across the world, and that's growing every year. Leveraging those tools, farmers have been capturing yield data since 1998 on their combines as they go through harvesting the fields.

The advancements in IoT and cloud-based computing, which put that data in usable formats right at their fingertips, have really propagated the ability to make sense of that data and do something with it. There's lots of different levels of technology that are being adopted, but once they're certain [it's adding] value, farmers tend to adopt them and move on to the next thing.

Hindman: I'd add that the agricultural industry is a bit unique in that the farmer persona is one of an innovator. Farmers are problem-solvers; they're always looking for a way to solve the dilemmas of the unpredictability that exists in their occupation. Because of that, I think their appetite for technology is high. They are interested in technology that helps them drive predictability and order from chaos in the system that they're running in. I think you see that replete through the history of agriculture, that technology is often adopted quickly, when it works in their application and can produce an outcome that's positive for them.

Power

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Mike Murphy

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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