John Deere’s Fully Autonomous Tractor Takes the Work Out of Tilling

The tractor can run free of any human assistance, freeing up much-needed time for farmers.

byLewin DayJan 4, 2022 7:01 PM
John Deere’s Fully Autonomous Tractor Takes the Work Out of Tilling
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As an agricultural machinery manufacturer, John Deere has raised some eyebrows after first appearing at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2019. The company has used the conference as a place to show off the latest farming hardware. This year is no exception, with John Deere revealing its first fully-autonomous tractor on the market, as reported by CNET.  

The hardware for autonomous operations is packed into two pods that mount to the front and back of a John Deere 8R tractor. Six pairs of stereo cameras are used for obstacle detection and range-finding, while GPS is used for navigating the vehicle through a field. A NVIDIA GPU is charged with processing all the incoming data to help the tractor do its job. 

With fields mapped out and boundaries set, the autonomous tractor can be sent off to work tilling the fields via a smartphone app, with no driver or observer required. In the event that the tractor has issues, a notification is sent to the farmer's smartphone to deal with the problem. 

However, the system is also designed not to hassle the farmer for every little thing, which would defeat the whole point of the autonomous system. For example, in the case of minor obstacle detections, John Deere's 24/7 support team may notified first. If the crew determines there is no hazard, if say the tractor has been confused by leaves in its path, they may direct the system to continue on without bothering the farmer.

At this stage, the autonomous-enabled 8R tractor can only handle the simple tilling task in bare fields.  Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer, noted that working in fields after planting will be the next challenge to overcome. Thick, high crops growing in fields make it much harder for the autonomous tractor to safely navigate, meaning tasks like spraying or harvesting aren't ready for full autonomy just yet. "The hardest technical problem for us from a perception perspective is probably standing crop," said Hindman.

Many farming operations have actually been largely automated for some time. Farmers have been using auto-steering systems for decades, which drive tractors, sprayers, and other implements along pre-set GPS tracks while the farmer sits in the cab. The next step has been getting the technology to the point where the machines could be left to complete their tasks entirely without supervision. That requires smarts to deal with situations like animals running around fields or other unexpected occurances, to avoid runaway machinery careening around farmland out of control.

It's an important forward step for John Deere, which comes at a fraught time for the manufacturer. Over 10,000 workers at John Deere went on strike at the end of last year for fairer pay and better working conditions. The company also continues to tangle with the "Right To Repair" issue, with farmers hacking their John Deere equipment in order to undertake necessary repairs without having to go through the restrictive dealer network.

John Deere isn't the first in this space; California startup Monarch Tractor got to market first with a small autonomous rig just recently. It does, however, mark the start of a trend, towards farm operations going fully autonomous. The technology promises to reduce labor requirements on farms even further, and companies will be rushing to capture the market with effective autonmous solutions for everything from spreading fertilzier on fields to getting the crop off at harvest time.

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