Deere Reveals Autonomous Tractor at CES

Deere Brings Autonomy to the Field This Year

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Deere's new autonomous tractor operates with six pairs of stereo cameras, which enables 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance. Each pixel of an image is processed in about 100 milliseconds and determines if the machine continues to move or stops. (John Deere photo)

LAS VEGAS (DTN) -- John Deere unveiled Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics (CES) show in Las Vegas a fully autonomous production tractor ready for delivery to its customers this year. This first autonomous system from Deere combines its autonomous Deere 8R tractor with a TruSet enabled chisel plow, GPS guidance system, and other new advanced technologies.

"What's unique about this autonomous tractor isn't just the technology ... (but) it is ready today for production," said Deanna Kovar, vice president of the production and precision ag business at Deere. "This isn't a concept. This isn't a demo. This is a working machine that will be available later this year to farmers."

Pointing to its founding 185 years ago as a maker of plows for Midwestern farmers, Deere says it is appropriate that its first autonomous system is a tillage system. Additional autonomous systems performing other field tasks will come online in the next few months and years.

"Until recently, agriculture has always been about doing more, with more -- more horsepower, more inputs, more acres -- but the new digital era is changing all of that. In the last decade, it has been about doing more with less, and providing farmers with tools to make informed decisions," Jahmy Hindman told the gathered press at the CES yesterday. "Artificial intelligence and machine learning are key technologies to building a continually smart, ever evolving and more efficient farm."

The autonomous tractor operates with six pairs of stereo cameras, which enables 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 of each image in about 100 milliseconds.

That imagery determines if the machine continues to move or stops, depending on if an obstacle is detected. The autonomous tractor is continuously checking its position relative to a geofence, ensuring it is operating where it is supposed to -- within less than an inch of accuracy.

To use the autonomous tractor, farmers only need to transport the machine to a field and configure it for autonomous operation. Using John Deere Operations Center Mobile app, they swipe from left to right to start the machine.

While the machine is working, the farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks, but while still monitoring the machine's status from their mobile device. They could watch from inside the cab of another piece of equipment in the nearby field, from their office, or somewhere else entirely with their family. And they can check not only the location of the tractor unit, but also the quality of the work it is performing.

The Operations Center app gives managers access to live video, images, data and metrics on machine performance. Speed can be adjusted, and performance optimized. If there is a mechanical issue, the farmer will be notified remotely. For avoidance, the tractor has an anomaly detection system -- a hard stop timeout that stops the machine if it sees something it does not recognize. In Deere's video presentation at the CES for example, a billboard falls into a field. The autonomous 8R tractor would stop because it does not recognize the billboard on the ground.

"With this autonomous tractor, we're giving back valuable time to farmers," said Kovar.

Beyond the workings of its technologies, Deere understands there is another issue it must satisfy as its autonomous 8Rs roll out into real farming country. Can farmers trust it? Can they swipe the app on their phone, get the signal the tractor is ready, execute the task and then just walk away from a 40,000-pound machine to work on its own?

Julian Sanchez, director of emerging technology at Deere, understands the assignment. "That requires a tremendous amount of trust," he said. "We're asking the farmer to hand over a task that needs to be done to their standards of quality; otherwise, it'll impact their crop and ultimately their livelihood. So, all that this technology (we've shared with you) is ultimately intended to earn and keep that trust."

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Dan Miller