John Deere revealed its first fully autonomous tractor today at CES 2022, building off of what it says are 20 years of AI development – and it’s not a concept. The self-driving John Deere is already up and running on select farms and available for sale.
Built on John Deere’s 8R tractor, the new autonomous product features a TruSet-enabled chisel plow, GPS guidance system, and other advanced technologies, including six pairs of stereo cameras that enable 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance. Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in approximately 100 milliseconds and determines if the machine continues to move or stops, depending on if an obstacle is detected. What’s more, John Deere executives spoke of that same neural network being able to differentiate between “weeds” and “crops” on the fly, selecting certain plants for removal while leaving others behind to grow. (Note: I used quotes on “weeds” because a rose is a weed in a cornfield, you know?)
The stated goal of the new John Deere tractor is to help farmers “do more with less.” At the press conference, company reps discussed how future farmers will feed a growing global population with fewer farm workers and less available farm land while, at the same time, reducing emissions. This tractor, they say, is a product that will do just that.
This has been a long time coming.
John Deere has been buying up a number of tech companies in recent years, from the acquisition of AI startup Blue River back in 2017 and to the purchase of EV battery maker Kreisler Electric late last year. Those acquisitions helped the tractor company develop an initial autonomous prototype that became the production model, first put into service on Minnesota farmer Doug Nimz’ farm a few years ago.
“It takes a while to get comfortable because … first of all, you’re just kind of amazed just watching it,” Nimz told c|net. Nimz described himself as, “very, very interested” but also a “little suspicious” of autonomous technology before using John Deere’s machine on his farm. “When I actually saw it drive … I said, ‘Well, goll [sic], this is really going to happen. This really will work.’”
This tractor is “[a] way to get the job done on time, every time and do it at a high level of quality,” Jahmy Hindman, Chief Technology Officer for Deere & Co., explained. “It’s 20 years in the making.” And, as several company reps pointed out in the press conference, it’s a hedge against losses incurred from labor shortages (read: farmers don’t have to pay people anymore).