Autonomous 8R Tractor

john deere autonomous tractor photo 406

As the world population grows, so too does demand for food. But labor shortages are making it harder for farmers in some parts of the world to keep pace. So U.S. agricultural powerhouse John Deere is turning to robotics, unveiling its first fully autonomous tractor: a 22-ton (19.9-metric ton) machine tricked out with sensors and a GPS guidance system that help it run on its own 24/7. The John Deere team also developed a smartphone app that allows farmers to start and stop the tractor, adjust its speed and monitor performance—all without being anywhere near it. The potential payoff for all this groundbreaking tech? Increased efficiency and a boost in production.

The autonomous system “provides farmers with more information so they can make smart decisions about their operations,” says Julian Sanchez, director of emerging technology at John Deere. “These vehicles are essentially creating a digital footprint of the farm and documenting the decisions they make to grow better crops every year.”

Designed for large-scale production farms, the tractor includes six pairs of stereo cameras that use artificial intelligence to scan and navigate its surroundings—allowing for a 360-degree view that detects obstacles and calculates distance to within less than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters). To fine-tune the technology and identify any glitches, the team tested a prototype for nearly four years on a farm in the U.S.

One flaw project leaders discovered: Shadows, leaves and variations in soil color could trigger the obstacle alerts that automatically stop the tractor. To improve the performance of the sensors and reduce those false alerts, the team designed the tractor’s lights to run at all times. Project leaders say the system performs even better at night because the image data contrast is higher. That means farmers can run the machine 24 hours a day, stopping only when it needs to be refueled, every eight to 10 hours.

“We’re giving back valuable time to farmers so they can spend it getting other jobs done,” says Deanna Kovar, VP of production and precision ag production systems at John Deere.

With all that data at stake, the team also needed to mitigate security risks. To protect information shared between the tractor and a smartphone, the team encrypted both ends and designed the system to automatically shut off the tractor when cellular connectivity is lost. And even once connectivity is reestablished, the farmer needs to authorize a restart via the app.

“Anything out of the ordinary that occurs while the tractor is active, the farmer will be notified and will be able to make decisions remotely,” Sanchez says.

Although John Deere had been working on driverless tractor technology for decades, the push really gained traction after the 185-year-old company acquired agtech startup Bear Flag Robotics last year. Now the tractors are slated to go on sale this year, but that’s just the start. The next step? Letting farmers retrofit their existing tractors with the autonomous system.

Photo courtesy of John Deere

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