An autonomous John Deere tractor brings us one step closer to farms

The most exciting gadget of the year is not a TV that shows NFT, or a foldable tablet, or something related to the metaverse. This is an autonomous tractor.

In particular, this is the John Deere 8R self-propelled tractor, which can plow fields, avoid obstacles and plant crops with minimal human intervention. It looks a lot like any other John Deere tractor – green and yellow – but there are six pairs of stereo cameras that use artificial intelligence to scan the surroundings and maneuver accordingly. The farmer also does not have to be close to the machine to operate it, as there is a smartphone app that controls everything. The tractor will go on sale later this year, just in time for an additional special robotic harvesting season.

“I think it’s a big deal,” Santos Pitla, an associate professor of modern mechanical systems at the University of Nebraska, told Recode. John Deere equipment accounts for more than half of all agricultural machinery sold in the United States, and even the simple fact that it launches a self-propelled tractor will change the way agriculture works. “This is great news,” Pitla said, “and this is good news.”

This is obviously a big deal for John Deere, but it is also a huge step forward for the precision farming movement in general. Simply put, precision farming is a concept that uses computers, data collection and satellite imagery to build a strategy to maximize a farm’s output. Autonomous agricultural equipment such as soil sensors, specialized drones and self-propelled tractors are key to the future, in which we can produce more crops with less effort and less impact on the environment. But who exactly is responsible for this future and who benefits from it remains to be seen.

There is reason to believe that farmers with thousands of acres will be the first in line to buy John Deere’s new self-driving tractors. With models ranging from 230 to 410 horsepower, John Deere 8R tractors are large machines designed for large farms. And while the company has not said how much its new autonomous tractor will cost, existing, non-autonomous 8R models could cost more than $ 600,000. John Deere says it will sell the automation system as a kit that can be installed on other models of tractors. The company also said it was looking to offer a subscription plan, but did not specify how much it would cost.

But even if a farmer buys the tractor directly, it is not clear who actually owns the equipment or valuable agricultural data he collects. The latest John Deere tractors are full of sensors and connected to the Internet. Almost everything the machine does is registered and broadcast in the cloud from the on-board cellular transmitter, and John Deere has the ability to remotely turn off many of its tractors if it finds that someone has modified their equipment or missed a lease payment. Many farmers say they can’t even repair tractors themselves so as not to trigger a switch that will completely deactivate the machine. This means that they are forced to pay John Deere or its authorized repairers for their maintenance needs. Meanwhile, John Deere’s privacy and data policy says it can share data on the activities of farmers that its software collects with “outsiders” in certain circumstances.

“I’m all about innovation and I think John Deere is a great company,” Kevin Kenny, agricultural engineer and repair rights advocate, told Wired after John Deere announced its autonomous tractor. “But they’re trying to be Facebook on agriculture.”

Close-up of the front end of a large tractor with headlights on.

John Deere says it will sell self-driving kits separately so that older models can be upgraded to stand-alone.
John Deere

John Deere is not the only one working on autonomous agricultural equipment, and it is not even clear that large self-propelled tractors are the best use of technology. Case has an autonomous tractor concept that doesn’t even have a driver’s cab, and AGCO, which owns agricultural equipment brands such as Fendt and Massey Ferguson, is testing smaller autonomous machines, including a seed drill the size of a washing machine. DJI, the popular drone manufacturer, already has a division dedicated to flying farm robots that can help with everything from crop monitoring to targeted pesticide spraying.

Many researchers believe that swarms of smaller machines working together are more promising for a wider range of farmers. Pitla, a professor from Nebraska, is working on a technology that would replace one 500-horsepower tractor with 10 50-horsepower tractors. Not only could the swarm cope better with different terrains and smaller farms, whose land might not be the same as large farms, but if one tractor broke, the others could continue to work.

“I’ve seen farmers do 18 hours of planting because the weather is perfect, the soil conditions are perfect,” Pitla said. “This is a very timely operation. So in a way, if you have swarms of these machines, you share the risk. ”

When you take into account the fact that the agricultural industry is facing a constant shortage of labor, which some say is getting worse, the concept of autonomous agricultural equipment is even more attractive. This fact could allay fears that automation is taking jobs away from people, but it will probably take years before we realize how devastating the widespread acceptance of agricultural automation in the labor market can be.

Agricultural drone for crop spraying.

DJI AGRAS T30 can use GPS coordinates to spray certain crops and uses radar to avoid obstacles on the road.

Farmers and technologists hope that self-driving tractors and other autonomous agricultural equipment will usher in an era of higher yields. The driving principle behind precision agriculture is that by better understanding the soil and tackling crop problems, we can extract more productivity from the limited amount of agricultural land in the world without negatively affecting the environment. This contributes to the growing debate over whether industrialized agriculture is recklessly profit-oriented and land-exploiting, or whether farm consolidation is more efficient. With the proper implementation of autonomous agriculture technology, we could have it in both directions.

“Like the autonomous automotive industry, the full autonomy of agricultural vehicles and equipment can also be considered important, if not the ultimate goal in the agricultural industry,” said Abhishes Silval, a project scientist working on agricultural robots at Carnegie Mellon. Institute of Robotics of the University. He added that automating delicate, time-sensitive tasks such as pruning and harvesting, which usually require skilled workers, can help sustainability in the long run.

So far, as researchers make drones and swarms smarter, we have John Deere and his self-propelled tractor. Even if it is not suitable or accessible to every farmer, the new self-driving machine pushes autonomous agriculture further into the mass flow. And unlike a NFT-capable TV, this technology can actually help feed the world.

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