The most exciting gadget of the year is not an NFT display TV or a folding tablet or anything related to the metavers. It is an autonomous tractor.
More specifically, it is the John Deere 8R self-driving tractor that can plow fields, avoid obstacles and plant crops with minimal human intervention. It looks a lot like any other John Deere tractor (it’s green and yellow), but there are six pairs of stereo cameras that use artificial intelligence to scan the environment and maneuver accordingly. The farmer does not have to be near the machine to run it either, as there is a smartphone app that controls everything. The tractor will go on sale at the end of the year, just in time for an extra special robotic harvest season.
“From my point of view, it’s a big problem,” Santosh Pitla, an associate professor of advanced machinery systems at the University of Nebraska, told Recode. The John Deere team accounts for more than half of all agricultural machinery sold in the United States, and even the mere fact that it is marketing an autonomous tractor will change the way agriculture works. “This is great news,” Pitla said, “and it’s good news.”
This is clearly a big issue for John Deere, but it also represents a big step forward for the precision farming movement as a whole. Simply put, precision farming is a concept that uses computers, data collection, and satellite imagery to build a strategy to maximize farm production. Autonomous agricultural equipment such as soil sensors, specialized drones and autonomous tractors are key to a future where we can produce more crops with less effort and less environmental impact. But exactly who is in charge of this future and who benefits from it remains to be determined.
There is reason to believe that farmers who own thousands of acres will be the first to buy John Deere’s new self-driving tractors. With models ranging from 230 to 410 horsepower, John Deere 8R tractors are great machines designed for large farms. And while the company has not said how much its new standalone tractor will cost, existing, non-standalone 8R line models can cost more than $ 600,000. John Deere says it will sell the automation system as a kit that can be installed on its other tractor models. The company also says it is looking to offer a subscription plan, but did not specify how much it would cost.
But even if a farmer buys the tractor directly, it is not clear who really owns the equipment or the valuable agricultural data he collects. Newer John Deere tractors are full of sensors and connected to the Internet. Almost anything the machine does is recorded and transmitted to the cloud from a mobile transmitter on board, and John Deere has the ability to remotely shut down many of its tractors if it determines that someone has modified their equipment or lost a lease payment. Many farmers say they can’t even repair the tractors themselves, lest they turn on a switch that turns off the machine completely. This means that they are required to pay John Deere or their authorized repair shops for their maintenance needs. Meanwhile, John Deere’s privacy and data policy says it can share data about farmers’ activities that its software collects with “outside parties” under certain circumstances.
“I’m totally in favor of innovation and I think John Deere is a fantastic company,” Kevin Kenney, an agricultural engineer and advocate for the right to repair, told Wired after John Deere announced its autonomous tractor. “But they’re trying to be the Facebook of agriculture.”
John Deere isn’t the only one working on autonomous farming equipment, and it’s not even clear that large autonomous tractors are the best use of technology. Case has a self-contained tractor concept that doesn’t even have a cab for a human driver, and AGCO, which owns farm equipment brands such as Fendt and Massey Ferguson, is testing smaller autonomous machines, including a seed planting robot. the size of a washing machine. DJI, the popular drone maker, now has an entire division dedicated to flying agricultural robots that can help with anything from crop monitoring to specific pesticide spraying.
Several researchers think that swarms of smaller machines working together are more promising for a wider range of farmers. Pitla, the Nebraska professor, is working on a technology that would replace a single 500-horsepower tractor with 10 50-horsepower tractors. Not only could the swarm handle better the different lands and the smaller farms, whose land might not be as uniform as the large farms, but if a tractor broke down, the rest could continue to work.
“I’ve seen farmers doing 18 hours of planting because the weather is perfect, the soil conditions are perfect,” Pitla said. “It simply came to our notice then. So in a way, if you have swarms of these machines, you’re spreading the risk. “
Given the fact that the agricultural industry is facing a shortage of continuous labor, which some say is getting worse, the concept of self-employed agricultural equipment is even more appealing. This could alleviate the concern that automation is moving away from human jobs, but it will probably be years before we understand the extent to which widespread adoption of automation in agriculture could be disruptive to the labor market.
Both farmers and technologists expect autonomous tractors and other autonomous agricultural equipment to usher in an era of higher yields. The guiding principle of precision agriculture is that if we better understand the soil and address crop problems, we can extract more productivity from the limited amount of arable land in the world without a negative impact on the environment. This leads to a growing debate about whether industrialized agriculture is recklessly driven by profits and exploits the land, or whether consolidating farms is more efficient. With the proper deployment of autonomous farming technology, we could have it in both ways.
“Similar to the autonomous car industry, the full autonomy of agricultural vehicles and equipment can also be considered an important, if not the last, goal in the agricultural industry,” said Abhisesh Silwal, a project scientist who works in agricultural robots at Carnegie Mellon. University Robotics Institute. He added that automating delicate, time-sensitive tasks such as pruning and harvesting, which typically require skilled workers, could help with long-term sustainability.
For now, while researchers are making smarter drones and swarming robots, we have John Deere and his autonomous tractor. Even if it is not suitable or affordable for all farmers, the new autonomous driving machine is driving more autonomous farming in the mainstream. And unlike the TV that can display NFT, this technology can help power the world.
This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one!