Deere Seeks to Give Time Back to Farmers Through Autonomous Systems

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Deere's autonomy group's charge is straightforward: Use autonomous systems to give managers the freedom of time to focus on what matters most to them. (Photo courtesy of John Deere)

Margaux Ascherl is program delivery manager for autonomy for the Intelligent Solutions Group at John Deere. She grew up in California and Florida and earned a Ph.D. in human factors psychology from Clemson University, at Clemson, South Carolina.

Ascherl came to John Deere in 2012. Her team leverages advanced technology to improve the lives of farmers by building products for customers that are easier to use, more efficient and more sustainable.

Ascherl does not come from a farming background. However, she spends days of her time riding in cabs with farmers, sometimes behind the wheel, trying to understand -- and trying to get hosts to explain -- their decision-making processes.

DTN/Progressive Farmer spoke with her about automation and the appropriate use of technology in modern farming practices. Automation and autonomy will help but not replace farmers, she said.


DTN/Progressive Farmer: Margaux, tell us about your role at John Deere.

Ascherl: I lead the team that looks into autonomy programs. We make sure (Deere offers) products that work well within the space of autonomy. What opportunities are there for automation to help solve problems? I feel strongly that technology (brings) opportunities to help folks live better lives. We are not a technology company looking for a problem. We have lots of challenges and a lot of opportunity. Autonomy is one technology that can solve problems.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: What does that look like on the ground?

Ascherl: Autonomy doesn't look a lot different than the rest of our product development. Customers are first. It's where we start. We look at problems that we either haven't solved yet because the technology hasn't been available or there is a connectivity (problem) for onboard computing -- the speed at which we have to deliver an affordable product (that solves the problem).

DTN/Progressive Farmer: In relation to Deere customers, what does autonomy mean?

Ascherl: We are trying to figure out where autonomy can replace monotonous tasks that are fatiguing, boring ... that take away from operations requiring farmer engagement. We can provide hours back to the farmers, help them decide their priorities are in life. You can't control the weather; you can't control grain prices. But (autonomy) can give them freedom of time to focus on what matters.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: Tell us about "giving back time."

Ascherl: We've been going out talking to farmers. Observing the farming operation, letting them point us to (certain practices). That might be tillage, spraying, planting, harvesting. We want to understand what those tasks are and understand where this type of technology (offers) opportunities. It would, again, free them up from those boring, monotonous tasks just like guidance did 20 years ago. We are spending a lot of time on farms understanding what that means.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: Is there a dividing line between autonomy that benefits the farmer -- gives him back time -- and autonomy that simply creates new tasks?

Ascherl: Human factor psychology is my background and is a huge passion for me. It is something that we have set out very clearly in our goals to understand. That we bring these ideas and concepts back to the farm and make sure we are not doing that. It is absolutely a line we watch for. We might have things in the hopper that have been there for years. But if we don't have the right process for implementing them, if technology hasn't quite caught up to make that easy yet, we are going to focus on those pieces. When we launch that piece of autonomy it will be usable for our farmers.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: Tell me about human factor psychology and how it fits into the work you do?

Ascherl: I started my career at Deere with the goal of understanding how people work, how they leverage technology and then try to make it easier to use. It applies to pretty much every product I've ever worked on. I'm really glad that John Deere has embraced this; they always have. I thought I would be here about two years, and now, I'm almost nine years into it. I love working with farmers. They are so open to helping you understand how their operation works and what problems they are trying to solve. I (see) how much they are doing, but they don't realize how much they are doing. They don't realize how much button-pushing or decision-making they are doing.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: What does this tell you?

Ascherl: I watch what they do to really understand the decisions they are trying to make and then (apply) technology that executes for them. Given all they are sensing in the cab, how do you bring that into something that is less hard, less fatiguing to monitor all the time, make that right decision, evaluate that decision and do something different (the next time)? How do I and my team take that knowledge and turn that into something that makes their job easier?

DTN/Progressive Farmer: Tell me what you learn working with farmers in and around their equipment?

Ascherl: I ask them to describe a task. They can't always articulate it; how many decisions they have just made in a very short, five-second period of time. They use that expertise every moment of every day. We will never take the farmer out of the farm. (But we want to) provide tools that make that easier.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: What do you see in the cab?

Ascherl: Farmers are dealing with the same technology as is in transportation or aviation or health care. We are looking at the ergonomics and tasks people are doing and how they do those tasks, how they make decisions and, actually, how they trust technology -- that fine line: Should I trust it or should I not? And, then, how do I make that decision? That's what I studied at school, and I see that all over farming world, especially under uncertainty. No farmer has control over every variable. Every step in the farming process is different -- from planting to harvesting, you're dealing with different weather conditions, for example. It's an endless space for problem-solving. How do you measure trust and appropriate reliance on technology? How do we come in and not interrupt the farming process? (Farmers) have to use their time wisely and not be distracted. That's what we specialize in.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: So, you watch what they do, take it back to your shop and look for opportunities to automate it.

Ascherl: Yes. But with flexibility. I've never met two farmers who are exactly alike in terms of preferences or how they manage their farm or how they manage their fleets, or how they solve problems. The machines are complex. Matching preferences for how they want to farm with the technology and making those connections easier to understand ... those are opportunities (for Deere).

DTN/Progressive Farmer: How does automation compliment sustainable farming practices?

Ascherl: Every farmer cares about their ground -- how every pass impacts the next. That's where advanced automation on the equipment, with data and our (John Deere) Operations Center play together. That's where the opportunity is.

DTN/Progressive Farmer: How do you make complimentary in the cab farmer experience and automation over a range of operations performed in a given year, in various cabs -- tractors, sprayers, combines?

Ascherl: This is what we would call an intentional user experience. We focus on it; we try to understand what needs to be different because the operation or task is truly different. There are different speeds, different inputs, different outcomes. You (try) to make those differences apparent and easy to understand, but also keep everything else that is common or that could be common as consistent as possible. We look at that with great intention. Every operation is different, yet there are opportunities to make (machinery functions) easier across the entire fleet.

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