Agricultural hardware giant and scourge of right-to-repair advocates everywhere John Deere is ready to show off its finished, fully-autonomous tractor. Here at CES, the company is saying that this unit is going to be put into large-scale production, and will be made available to farmers later this year. When in use, a farmer can set the hardware to work and then leave it running, allowing them to tend to vital work elsewhere. The idea, so the company says, is to help make farming more efficient and more robust in the face of ever-increasing demand and dwindling resources. John Deere's ambitions in this space have been running for some time, and the company was showing off an autonomous tractor at this show in 2019.
Deere & Co. helped mechanize agriculture in 1837 with the first commercially successful steel plow. On Tuesday, the company unveiled a machine that could prove just as transformative: a fully autonomous tractor. John Deere's new 8R tractor uses six pairs of stereo cameras and advanced artificial intelligence to perceive its environment and navigate. It can find its way to a field on its own when given a route and coordinates, then plow the soil or sow seeds without instructions, avoiding obstacles as it goes. A farmer can give the machine new orders using a smartphone app.
Next time you pass a farm where a modern tractor is cruising around a field, take a closer look. While there is a farmer sitting in the cab, the vehicle might be driving itself. That tractor is often operating on auto pilot using semi-autonomous, self-driving technology. While the tractor plows along thanks to features like autosteer and computer-assisted technologies for applying fertilizers or pesticides, the farmer can send work texts or emails, pay bills or even flip through Instagram stories or TikTok videos. For farmers, this kind of efficiency is not a luxury.
Farmers in the American heartland are increasingly turning to illicit foreign black markets for the illegal software needed to make home repairs to their field equipment. Online black markets for cracked John Deere firmware have sprung up in Eastern Europe after the tractor manufacturer introduced restrictive new licensing agreements that make repair outside the dealership all but impossible, a new report in Motherboard reveals. 'Let's say you've got a guy here who has a tractor and something goes wrong with it--the nearest dealership is 40 miles away, but you've got me or a diesel shop a mile away,' a repair mechanic in Nebraska told the publication. 'The only way we can fix things is illegally.' Farmers in the secret forums can buy reverse-engineered diagnostic equipment and illegal versions of John Deere software.
But when the heartland needs tech, it still comes to Silicon Valley. On Thursday, John Deere announced that it would acquire Bear Flag Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup that makes fully autonomous tractors for farms, for $250 million. Bear Flag retrofits regular tractors with sensors, control systems, computers, and communications systems needed to operate autonomously. The company's tech lets a lone farmer remotely oversee a fleet of robot tractors autonomously tilling a field. "John Deere putting their stamp on this kind of fully autonomous technology means it's really coming," says George Kantor, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in the use of robots in agriculture.