AI Moves From Hype to Reality

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Julian Sanchez, John Deere director of emerging technologies. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

John Deere has just completed its third year at the CES. Formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual event takes over Las Vegas with its vast look into the world of technology (it was a virtual event this year).

Given what it makes, Deere's presence is not hard to miss. In three years -- displaying first a combine, then last year a sprayer with 100-foot booms unfolded and, this year, an 8RX tractor and ExactEmerge-equipped planter combo featured in its virtual display -- the manufacturer has presented to the attending world tech community one year in farming.

DTN/Progressive Farmer spoke with Julian Sanchez, Deere's director of emerging technologies, during the CES about Deere's messaging and interaction with the CES community.


PF: What does Deere gain from the CES, engaging the tech community there?

Sanchez: What we've [learned] is that this exchange of ideas and knowledge between us and the rest of the tech industry yields a couple of valuable dimensions. One is we get to talk tech with everybody, and that is really valuable for us. It opens our eyes to the trends. Second, we're here to represent agriculture. We started with the combine [two years ago]. This year, Deere told the [CES] planting, completing the full story of agriculture. [We're talking] about precision agriculture ... helping them understand the scale of precision. You explain we're going 10 miles per hour across a bumpy field, it's dusty and there is residue. You open a trench and put a seed in there ... and, all of a sudden, their eyes light up and [they're] like, "Oh, that is a lot." So, this year, yes, we focused on tech and ExactEmerge and electrification. But, for us, the bigger picture is to continue to advocate for ag.

PF: The story of ag has to be fascinating to someone who doesn't farm. What does Deere take away from the CES?

Sanchez: CES is a community whereby, participating in it, you begin to see signposts about what is already changing or what is about to change. For example, think about 2014 or 2015: Everyone was talking about connectivity and the Internet of Things. [More recently], you are seeing a lot of investment in camera technology both in hardware and software to process images. We are already investing in that, we're doing "See and Spray," we've got ActiVision. But if the rest of the tech world continues to pour money into this, then let's be ready to capitalize on those investments, turn them into valuable features for farmers. That, to me, is the core value for being at CES.

PF: Give me a state of the tech industry summary. Where does agriculture exist within the industry?

Sanchez: Tech trends all follow this well-established hype curve. For a few years, there is a lot of chatter, and then they might peak, die off and go away. My assessment is that artificial intelligence and innovations around artificial intelligence have gone from hype to reality. For a long time, it was a chore to initiate any AI project, to find the talent, the tools to use to determine the right method to execute a product program leveraging AI. We are beginning to see AI scale as a set of tools and capabilities. That is the most important thing that we should not miss. It is going to get cheaper and more practical to execute AI programs.

PF: In terms of products born from Deere's tech research, what should farmers expect in this year and those following?

Sanchez: Here in [2021], we'll start the commercialization of See and Spray technologies, and that is leveraging AI for detection of weeds. The way we think about See and Spray is that this is just year one in a long journey of opportunities using AI to help detect not just weeds, but [impact plant health]. This journey is going to be similar to the guidance journey, which started nearly 20 years ago. I think we're at the beginning of a 20-year journey around AI. Farming is a very visual task. You're using your eyes and your experience to assess what you should do. As we brainstorm about AI, [we always ask] what are farmers looking at and what types of decisions are they making? Those [are] opportunities for AI.

PF: What would be an example beyond See and Spray?

Sanchez: If a farmer could see in real-time what is happening in the furrow, what kind of decisions would they make? This is something we are trying to assess.

PF: What might that look like? What might a farmer see to make a management change?

Sanchez: They might see residue, they might see a different soil type, they might see condensation or moisture that would say the seed might be planted a little deeper in this area or we should get past that old corn stalk so that seed has a better shot.

PF: So, this would be automated, autonomous decision-making on the go?

Sanchez: Absolutely. And that's the other part of the brainstorming process. What decisions can be made based on what you are seeing, and what will give you the opportunity to act on the go?

PF: What does Deere see in 5G technologies.

Sanchez: It is a huge opportunity for agriculture. The bandwidth and latency improvements are important and interesting. We are experimenting with it; so is the whole world. But here is what's important: This has reopened the conversation about the infrastructure needed to support cellular coverage. Since we are going to be putting up new towers [and equipment], let's make sure we put it everywhere now, not just in the cities.

PF: That is happening?

Sanchez: Yes. What's interesting is that, in previous generations of cellular technology, the way it was rolled out was very much controlled by the telecom industries. They decided where to put the towers. 5G has opened up numerous ways to roll it out; some are more privatized. It is more democratized. It allows for [greater] proliferation of the infrastructure. There is a better chance it will hit rural areas.

PF: To conclude, what is Deere's main tech message to farmers?

Sanchez: We are laser-focused on measuring the economic impact of all the technology we invest in. It's very easy to get distracted as a technology company and start to chase things that seem interesting. But, at Deere, we ask: How will this impact the farmers' economic calculations? Wherever we identify a technology with opportunity, we invest heavily. That's why this whole journey with See and Spray. We know the economic impact this can have on farmers. We are going to keep doing it. Things like our guidance systems. Farmers embrace those technologies and want them. We will continue to invest in those. And safeguarding their trust. Focusing on making sure that data is secure and farmers have full control of their data -- that's something that already exists, but the investment continues to be heavy.

Dan Miller can be reached at

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