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John Deere enters future of farming with autonomous tractor

The farm gear manufacturer will release a self-driving 8R model as farmers struggle to find labor and seek equipment for more efficient farming to maximize yield.

John Deere recently introduced tractor can till without a driver in the cockpit, a glimpse at the possible future of farming.

The autonomous tractor Deere unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show last week is an essential part of precision agriculture, experts said. The yield-maximizing concept relies on computer models, data aggregation and satellite imagery to reduce costs and environmental harm by using less fuel, land, fertilizer and pesticides. 

Self-driving tractor makers have incorporated the latest technology in their products as farmers face a massive labor shortage. The high-tech machines and other automated gear help growers meet the increasing demand for food produced on fewer resources. IDC predicts the world will need twice as much food by 2050.

"We really need to heavily invest in automation and autonomous vehicles [if] we want our growers to be competitive in the global market," said Yiannis Ampatzidis, assistant professor of precision agriculture at the University of Florida.

Deere's latest tractor combines the company's standard 8R model with a GPS guidance system and six pairs of cameras that enable 360-degree obstacle detection. A farmer can preprogram the tractor to either go around obstacles or shut down and send an alert.

Farmers have complete driver-like control of the tractor through an Apple iPhone or iPad app that runs on iOS 11 or higher. Deere plans to release an Android app eventually.

The tractor is limited to row crops like corn and soybeans, which account for most U.S. farmland. "Right now, we're focused on row crops. That's John Deere's bread and butter," said Willy Pell, vice president of autonomy at John Deere.

The new 8R has been in beta testing for about two years on a few farms, Pell said. The manufacturer, the largest U.S. maker of agricultural equipment, plans to release the tractor this year. 

Deere didn't release pricing, but analysts expect the advanced 8R to cost more than the current model, which has a top-of-the-line price of $600,000. The manufacturer plans to price the new product for farms with an average of 4,000 acres, the size of a medium farm, Pell said.

John Deere autonomous tractor
The John Deere autonomous tractor can navigate crop fields without a driver.

"We wouldn't make it if [farmers] couldn't afford it," he said. 

Based in Moline, Ill., Deere began working on an autonomous tractor in 2017 with the acquisition of AI startup Blue River Technology. The company bought autonomous tractor startup Bear Flag Robotics last year.

Others in the market include Italy-based Case IH, a subset of CNH Industrial, which acquired precision agriculture startup Raven Industries last year. Smaller companies like Monarch, Sabanto and SwarmFarm Robotics make add-ons that turn existing tractors autonomous.

Farmers are concerned that the complex technology that manufacturers are adding to agricultural gear will increase maintenance costs and make repairs difficult and time-consuming.

"Waiting a long time for a technician to come make a repair can be a disaster during certain times of the year," said Brad Kroeker, whose California family farm operates Deere tractors almost exclusively.

Deere plans to avoid breakdowns by collecting data to improve its autonomous system. The company won't make the data available to farmers, but that could change in the future, Pell said.

Maxim Tamarov is a news writer covering mobile and end-user computing. He previously wrote for The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C., and the Sun Transcript in Winthrop, Mass. He can be found on Twitter at @MaximTamarov.

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