John Deere’s autonomous driving tractor provokes a debate about AI in agriculture

Deere & Co. helped mechanize agriculture in 1837 with the first commercially successful steel plow. The company unveiled on Tuesday a machine that could be just as transformative: a fully autonomous tractor.

The new John Deere 8R tractor uses six pairs of stereo cameras and advanced artificial intelligence to perceive its surroundings and navigate. You can find your way to a field on your own when given a route and coordinates, then plow the land or sow seeds without instructions, avoiding obstacles as you go. A farmer can place new orders on the machine using a smartphone app.

Some tractors already operate autonomously, but only in limited situations, following a GPS-defined route, for example, without the ability to navigate obstacles. Others have limited autonomy that still requires a farmer to sit behind the wheel.

“It’s a monumental change,” says Jahmy Hindman, Deere’s chief technology officer, of the new machine unveiled at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “I think it’s as big as the transition from horse to tractor.”

The John Deere 8R tractor uses cameras and AI to navigate.

Courtesy of John Deere

Self-propelled tractors could help save farmers money and automate work that is threatened by a shortage of agricultural labor. But further automating agriculture and adding AI can also spark a debate about worker replacement, as well as the ownership and use of the data it generates.

Deere did not say how much the new tractor will cost; its most expensive current models can reach $ 800,000. Hindman says the company is exploring several possible models, including a subscription plan.

Autonomy has been introduced in tractors and other agricultural equipment for decades, with recent advances based on the progress of robotics and autonomous cars.

The fully autonomous 8R relies on neural network algorithms to make sense of the information being transmitted to its cameras. Deere has been collecting and recording the data needed to train these algorithms for several years, Hindman says.

Companies that build autonomous cars use a similar approach to AI. Tesla, for example, collects data through its cars that are used to perfect its Autopilot autopilot system. And while an empty field poses fewer challenges than a busy city intersection, Hindman admits that, as with autonomous cars, the system may have difficulty seeing its surroundings in extreme weather conditions such as snow or rain.

Qin Zhang, director of the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems at Washington State University, who previously worked on a Deere-funded autonomous tractor prototype, says the technical issues appear to have been largely resolved. But he says some farmers may find the system too expensive or too difficult to program.

Deere has been incorporating more AI and autonomy into its products over the last decade. In August, the company said it had paid $ 250 million to acquire Bear Flag Robotics, a startup that modifies tractors to make them more self-sufficient. In 2017, it paid $ 305 million to buy Blue River Technology, which makes robots capable of identifying and removing unwanted plants through a high-precision herbicide blast.

The new 8R tractor may indicate a bigger shift in Deere’s ambitions. Not only does it turn the company’s most iconic product into a capable robot; it also provides a virtuous cycle for training new AI algorithms and developing new products.

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