John Deere Launches Fully Autonomous Tractors
Agriculture is the mainstay occupation in many countries worldwide, and with a rising population, there will be more pressure on land, and farmers will have to do more with less. However, traditional methods are not enough to handle this huge demand. This is driving farmers and agriculture companies to find newer ways to increase production and reduce waste.
Automation is steadily emerging as part of the agriculture industry’s technological evolution. While the farm equipment industry has spent several decades moving toward developing autonomous equipment, the race to commercially market that equipment has recently moved into high gear with John Deere’s fully autonomous tractors.
John Deere unveiled a fully autonomous version of its 8R tractor that’s ready for large-scale production at CES 2022. This technological breakthrough could help farmers cope with a worsening skilled labor shortage. While Deere has had self-guided tractors for nearly two decades, drivers had to remain in the cab to correct any missteps and watch the direction of the plow.
Now, with the new fully autonomous tractors, farmers can operate their tractors 24 hours a day, and all the farmer has to do is transport the machine to a field and configure it for autonomous operation. The farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks while monitoring the machine’s status on a mobile device.
How Does the Technology Work?
Autonomy has been creeping into tractors and other farm equipment for decades, with recent advances building upon the progress made in robotics and self-driving cars. The fully autonomous tractor combines technology already in John Deere tractors like GPS navigation, horsepower, and plows with newer innovations that allow it to be autonomous.
The autonomous tractor kit features six pairs of stereo cameras, which allow for 360-degree obstacle detection and distance calculation. Images captured by the cameras at three frames per second are passed through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in approximately 100 milliseconds to determine if the machine should continue to move or stop, based on whether an obstacle is detected.
The autonomous tractor also continuously checks its position relative to a geofence, ensuring that it’s operating within the determined work area and is accurate to within less than an inch.
Using John Deere Operations Center Mobile, farmers can swipe from left to right to start the machine. The Operations Center Mobile also provides access to live video, images, data, and metrics and allows a farmer to adjust speed, depth, and more. The system will also gather data about the soil as it toils away. That information will be used to tweak its algorithms, helping to improve performance and provide farmers with new insights on how to best work their land. In case of any job quality anomalies or machine health issues, farmers will be notified remotely and can make adjustments to optimize the machine’s performance.
You’ll need steady cellular connectivity to operate the autonomous tractor in the field. If it loses its cell signal, the tractor will stop and won’t start back up until it reestablishes a connection and gets the OK from the farmer through the app.
What Can it Do?
This autonomous tractor won’t handle all aspects of tractor work, though. Right now, Deere is focusing on the job of tillage — preparing the soil for cultivation, either by turning over the earth, removing crop residue, or plowing this material back into the field to return nutrients to the soil. Tilling is usually done around harvest time, meaning farmers may set it aside in favor of more pressing tasks, which makes it a perfect target for automation. However, the tractor will likely be able to handle other farming operations such as planting and spraying in the future.
The tractor can also still be used manually for other tasks, not just autonomous operations. John Deere installed multiple ways to manually control and stop the autonomous tractor inside the machine, including through the throttle and normal brakes. The farmer can also grab the steering wheel to take over the operation of the machine.
The Human Factor
Although the John Deere tractor is an autonomous system, it’s worth noting that there are humans in the loop, and not just farmers. When the algorithms spot something unexpected, images from the cameras will be sent to teleoperators, who will manually check if the obstacle is a false positive or if the problem has resolved itself. If it’s a real issue, they’ll escalate things to the farmer via an alert on their mobile app. The farmer can then view the images themselves and decide if they want to plot a new course or check the situation in person.
Deere is being cautiously slow with the rollout of the autonomous tractor. They will let a limited number of farmers use the autonomous system later this year. During the initial rollout, Deere will rent a full tractor and chisel plow to about 10 to 50 producers with steady internet connectivity on their farms and are interested in using the autonomous technology.
Later on, the company will let farmers bring their own tractors to be retrofitted with autonomous technology. Deere will be selling its new autonomy package as equipment to be retrofitted onto a number of its more recent tractors. It plans to support at least the past three years of tractors and may eventually support older machines.
Because John Deere tractors have had self-driving technology for decades, configuring them to be fully autonomous is relatively easy. It will take only about a day to install the equipment and test a machine before a farmer can take it home to use in the field. Due to the changes made to the tractor, a farmer can’t easily move the autonomous pod from one tractor to another. Pricing has yet to be announced.
Benefits of Automation
Compared to traditional farm equipment, autonomous farm equipment saves time and cost in the yielding process, making this advanced equipment a preferable choice for farming procedures. Automation of farm equipment offers several benefits, including:
- Precise and reliable operations
- Efficient cultivation
- Continued operations regardless of weather or time
- Long-term solutions for heavy and complex operations, including harvesting and plowing.
Deere has been adding automation to its farm machinery for 20 years, enabling precision planting, for example, and spraying fertilizer or pesticides on individual plants. With its fully autonomous tractor, available later this year, farmers can now leave chores like tilling the land to the machine and focus on other value-adding activities.
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