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John Deere inches toward autonomy

Is a driverless machine in your farm’s future?

John Deere showed some of its newest technology at the Consumer Electronics Show this year tackling the topic of the inevitable advancement of autonomy in agriculture.

Anyone who has purchased — or even looked at — new farm equipment lately is plainly aware of one thing: every brand has incorporated a host of advanced features that take over some tasks from the operator, and they do them much better than even the most skilled driver could. At John Deere, introducing specific features created during R&D on autonomous projects into production machines has helped engineers and developers. It has allowed them to gain a better understanding of how fully autonomous equipment might eventually best fit into farmers’ operations.

“We’ve learned a lot as technology has grown along the way, to enable some of this technology to be marketable and built into a product that is sustainable and farmers can actually use long term,” said Margaux Ascherl, Deere’s program delivery manager for autonomy at the brand’s Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG). “As technology has evolved, so have we.”

As Deere made its third annual appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show — held virtually in January rather than as an in-person event like most ag equipment shows have been over the past year — it highlighted the technology built into its new ExactEmerge planter.

“We’ve launched several products along the way that have benefitted from that R&D,” Ascherl explains. “If you look at the ExactEmerge planter that can precisely place seed going seven miles per hour or the see-and-spray products that we’re working on now and are publicly available, our relationship with Blue River (a technology startup that Deere recently purchased), for example, and our Combine Advisor. Those are good examples where we’ve found a nice way to introduce technology that makes sense on a customer’s farm now, because that’s what really matters. A lot of those technologies have benefitted from the autonomy journey along the way and will continue to do so.”

The Consumer Electronics Show moved to an online-only venue this year, just like most ag equipment shows in 2020. photo: CES

Does it solve a problem or create one?

While Ascherl says full automation of at least some farm machines is almost certainly just over the horizon, engineers are still looking at how to most efficiently introduce it. Which machines will most benefit from it? Which producers will want it? And how can autonomy be worked into operations without causing more problems than it creates?

“The biggest need is to follow the customer problems they’re having today and not introduce new ones,” she says. “We need to make this easy for farmers.”

And how will farmers respond to the introduction of fully autonomous machines? When telematics offerings were initially introduced, the uptake by those buying new equipment was pretty slow at the start. Many even had a reluctance to add GPS guidance when it debuted. Will producers be quick to replace their existing fleets with autonomous machines?

“It’s hard to predict,” Ascherl says. “But the amount of technology on the farm today is different than it was 10 or maybe 20 years ago. Technology has been well established on farms today, so I think it’ll go a little faster than previous (technology) rollouts did.”

John Deere’s Margaux Ascherl and Chad Passman along with Scott Garvey discussed Deere’s progress in autonomous technology development during a conference call. photo: Supplied

The existing infrastructure Deere has created and growing acceptance of operator aids in current production models are likely to help growers more quickly accept autonomy, not to mention the continued labour shortage that most producers have grappled with for years.

“The John Deere operations centre gives us a platform to use something farmers are already using on their farms,” says Ascherl. “It allows us to use common practices that customers are used to, to start enabling an autonomous fleet. Technology is (now) more common on farms — it’s not something unusual or weird. With technology being so ubiquitous, and part of everyday life, the trends have changed slightly. With technology, it’ll depend on how well it fits on a farm, if it solves customers’ problems and whether or not it introduces new ones.”

But autonomous equipment is unlikely to be the best bet for everyone, she acknowledges. It likely won’t suit all operations, at least in the near term. And those who enjoy spending time in the tractor cab will probably still be able to get their hands on new equipment designed to have a warm body in the driver’s seat.

“I have never spoken to two customers that are exactly the same in terms of what they need on their operations,” she says. “I do think Deere is going to ensure we can support all of our customers’ operations as they grow and change. They are going to be the ultimate feedback loop for us.”

But even the kind of equipment we see today that needs an operator will likely see a growing technology presence. However, which systems get incorporated into them will depend on whether or not producers see them as useful.

“The same message applies — does it solve a customer problem and is it feasible in an operation,” says Ascherl. “If it solves a customer’s problem in a way that makes sense, then it has some legs. If not, it’s a concept and it’s the kind of technology that stays in R&D until it solves a customer problem and it does it well.

“We’re really looking at solutions first and letting our customers drive the need for autonomy. I hope our solutions will bring ease of life on the farm and allow our customers to focus on what matters, rather than on these day-to-day tasks that aren’t maybe as important as some others. That’s our goal and our mission — make life easier through technology.”

About the author


Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.



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