John Deere, easily the most important heavy farming equipment manufacturer in the world, has been moving in the direction of artificial intelligence for a while now. Earlier this week, the company announced a massive new step in that direction: a fully autonomous version of its 8R tractor. Farmer not required.
Deere has for the past decade or so positioned itself more as a technology company than a bucolic producer of agricultural machines; just this year, it acquired a Silicon Valley startup called Bear Flag Robotics, which works with artificial intelligence. Deere’s tractors and other equipment gather huge amounts of data, which the company intensely values, even getting into scraps with the White House over the obstacles it’s put in place to keep farmers from repairing their own tractors.
It’s hard to overstate how important John Deere is in the agricultural world, most notably for the row crop farmers of corn and soy in the country’s Farm Belt. Deere not only holds what is essentially a monopoly on equipment, but is also a top-five agricultural bank in the United States, offering lending services for inputs, land, and, of course, equipment.
The company announced its new autonomous tractor at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show, a large convention that’s more typically the venue for announcements of new smartphones and televisions. This particular product is an autonomous version of its 8R tractor, used examples of which are listed at between $300,000 and $500,000, depending on features and options. But this version will have, according to Real Agriculture, six pairs of cameras for obstacle detection and a neural net artificial intelligence system, which are AI systems modeled after biological brains and are capable of learning.
The system as a whole will be not dissimilar from self-driving cars such as Tesla, although the comparatively simpler task of row-cropping (compared with, say, looking out for pedestrians and cyclists on crosswalks) means that it can be operated right now without any driver at all. According to Wired, which spoke with a Deere representative, the system will also be able to take readings of soil quality and composition. On the one hand, that could make it easier for farmers to monitor and adjust their work; on the other, Deere owns that data, and the issue of farmers not having control over the data on their own land has been a cause for concern for many activists.
Deere says the new autonomous 8R is ready for full-scale production and will be available later this year. Pricing has yet to be announced.