CES 2019: John Deere Highlights Tractors’ Autonomy

January 10, 2019 by Sebastian Blanco, @SebastianBlanco

A John Deere combine is more at home among rows of corn than at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, but that didn’t stop Deere & Co. from bringing farm equipment to the technology confab.

The company had a booth at CES for the first time. It was dominated as much by the vehicle as it was by the message that technologies like autonomous driving and highly precise GPS data play a vital role in today’s farm life.

“Finding qualified skilled labor in rural America is getting harder and harder, and farmers see autonomous driving as a tool that helps them hire less skilled operators to work in the cab,” said Deanna Kovar, Deere’s director of production and precision for agricultural marketing.

“We’re here to help folks understand how technology applies to agriculture,” Kovar said.

‘Precision agriculture’

While Deere showed an early autonomous tractor concept back in 2003, it’s the pending automation technologies for the implements that follow behind the tractor that could have the biggest impact on what Kovar called “precision agriculture.”

Deere says its GPS tech is accurate to within 2.5 centimeters – less than one inch. This allows Deere to automate some of the nondriving portions of farm work, such as knowing exactly where to spray pesticides or fertilizer. This means the farmer spends less on those materials.

“Our math says that we can save up to 10 percent of the inputs in farming by using guidance. That’s a huge opportunity,” Kovar said.

The automation devices in a new John Deere tractor were developed by the John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, a team within Deere focused on using technology to increase crop yields.

“We’re here to help folks understand how technology applies to agriculture,” Deere’s Deanna Kovar said of the company’s first CES app[earance. (Photo: Sebastian Blanco/Trucks.com)

Cameras and coordinates

Deere’s self-driving technology uses on-board cameras and GPS coordinates. The cameras can also be used without any GPS data or on a predetermined route to identify crop rows, but they are not able to recognize and avoid obstacles, like people or animals. Deere is working on those upgrades, Kovar said, with fully autonomous farm implements a possibility in the future. For now, a live operator still needs to be in the tractor at all times.

“The human being is still the primary sensor,” said Curtis Maeder, a Deere staff systems engineer.

Standard tech

Some of Deere’s automation technology is already standard in its tractors. AutoTrac, the company’s GPS-based, satellite-corrected, self-driving technology, and a modem are included in every Deere tractor sold in the U.S., “because connectivity is so well-adopted,” Kovar said.

But some farmers are opting for upgrades, such as the $3,896 Deere StarFire 6000 Receiver. Farmers pay for the optional technology because they are objective and see a return on their investments, said Willy Pell, director of engineering at Blue River Technology, an agriculture-focus machine learning company and Deere subsidiary.

“They’re not going to buy something because it’s cool,” he said. “If it exists, it makes money, because otherwise they wouldn’t buy it.”

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