John Deere's $250 million acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics will begin paying dividends almost immediately for its farming customers. Deere says Bear Flag's autonomous driving technologies -- already at work on machines in California -- will initially be offered as a retrofit for existing tractors.
"A retrofit product allows us to tap into a large install, and that's one of the big value drivers here is meeting customers where they're at," says Dan Leibfried, director of automation and autonomy, Intelligent Solutions Group, John Deere.
Deere's history with Bear Flag goes back to 2019, when the California startup began to work with Deere through its novel Startup Collaborator program. The Startup Collaborator program works with innovative technology providers whose work may add value for Deere customers.
Deere's need for technology is vast. "The space is rapidly evolving, and while [John Deere] has tons of capability in the precision technology and precision ag space, the reality is we need more, and we need a lot more ultimately," Leibfried says.
"The growing demand for food production with decreasing resources and increased pressure to do more with less in shorter periods of time is really what inspired us, that lit the fire for us to go solve in some way the problems we were hearing over and over and over again," says Aubrey Donnellan, co-founder and chief operating officer of Bear Flag Robotics.
Bear Flag technologies address logistics challenges. "If you're in the middle of harvest and the logistics associated with that, and you need to get primary tillage done, and you don't ... it has a significant impact on yield for the crop for the next year," Leibfried explains. "Things like autonomous technology and what we're doing with Bear Flag Robotics will help to solve those challenges."
Automating a job means engineers must understand every motion needed to complete a task but also, just as importantly, understand the failures that can occur in these environments.
"We build autonomous technology for farm tractors," Donnellan says. Bear Flag Robotics, based in the East Bay of San Francisco Bay, does not build tractors. "We focus on the autonomous technology stack -- it's the sensors, the actuators, the computers and the software that goes on top of the machine that give [the tractor] situational awareness, the ability to navigate rugged environments, to perform a job effectively and, hopefully, do better than a human can do in the cab."
Bear Flag's technology leverages LiDAR, radar and camera sensors, as well as the computer resources that enable tractors to work autonomously. The technology incorporates advanced technologies such as computer vision, artificial intelligence and machine learning. LiDAR, or light detection and ranging, is a remote sensing method that measures distances of objects on the earth's surface.
Bear Flag has been working with customers in California of various sizes -- from operator-owned to large, publicly owned businesses. The technology has been operating in orchards, tree nut orchards, leafy produce and tomatoes.
"We were spraying autonomously," Donnellan says. "We ultimately found a very good niche in tillage. And, that's really what we've been focusing on for the last few years. We've upgraded our machine sizes to accommodate doing this for growers at a larger scale. [But] tillage is just the start. We plan to move across all production steps."
Here are other recent John Deere machinery releases:
-- Deere W200 Series M and R Windrowers. The W200 Series self-propelled windrowers help farmers speed the harvest and improve efficiency; 10% faster drydown; 24 mph transport speed; in-cab adjustments of swath flap and forming shields with tilt and height resume; TouchSet controls that allow operators to adjust windrow width, and tilt from the cab while cutting.
-- Deere 6120EH tractor. The 6120EH tractor is designed to meet the needs of high-value crop growers who require high clearance and reduced speeds to match the speed of field workers; plus creeper transmission for speeds as low as .14 mph; multiple tread spacings of 72, 76, 80 or 84 inches.
-- Deere 6155MH tractor. For high-value crops in Arizona and California, and for sugarcane producers in Louisiana and Florida. Rear drop axle provides additional clearance under the axle; greater drawbar clearance; factory-installed creeper speed; front hitch with hydraulic SCVs (selective control valves).
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
-- Bear Flag Robotics: www.bearflagrobotics.com
-- John Deere: www.johndeere.com
-- Follow Dan on Twitter @DMillerPF
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