John Deere’s self-driving tractor sparks a debate on AI in Farming

1641412621 John Deeres self driving tractor sparks a debate on AI in

Deere & Co. helped with agricultural implements in 1837 with the first commercially successful steel plow. On Tuesday, the company unveiled a potentially equally transformative device: a fully automated tractor.

John Deere’s new 8R tractor uses six pairs of stereo cameras and advanced artificial intelligence to see and navigate its surroundings. He can find his way to a field by himself when he finds a path and coordinates, then plow the soil or sow seeds unsupervised, avoiding obstacles as he goes along. A farmer can give new commands to the machine using a smartphone app.

Some tractors already work independently but only in confined conditions - following a GPS-defined route, for example, without the ability to navigate obstacles. Others show limited autonomy that still requires a farmer to sit behind the wheel.

"It's a big move," said Jahmy Hindman, Deere's chief technology officer, of the new device, which was unveiled at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "I think it's as big as moving from horse to tractor."

John Deere's 8R tractor uses cameras and AI for navigation.

Courtesy of John Deere

Self-driving tractors could help save farmers money and automated work that is at risk from a continuing shortage of agricultural labor. But with the automation of more farming, and the addition of AI, that could spark a debate about replacing workers as well as the ownership and use of the data that it generates.

Deere did not say how much the new tractor would cost; their most expensive custom models can run up to $ 800,000. Hindman says the company is exploring a number of possible modules, including a membership plan.

Autonomy has been creeping into tractors and other farm equipment for decades, with recent advances building on advances in robotics and self-driving cars.

The fully automated 8R relies on cloud network algorithms to make sense of the information flowing into its cameras. Deere has been collecting and identifying the data needed to train these algorithms for several years, Hindman says.

A similar AI approach is used by companies that build self-driving cars. Tesla, for example, collects data through its cars that is used to boost its Autopilot autopilot system. And while an empty space presents fewer challenges than a busy city intersection, Hindman admits, as with self-driving cars, that the system may have a problem with what is around it. the real weather such as snow or rain.

Qin Zhang, director of the Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems at Washington State University, who previously worked on a prototype autonomous tractor funded by Deere, says the technical issues appear to be partially resolved. large. But he says the system may be too expensive or too difficult for some farmers to program.

Deere has been incorporating more AI and autonomy into its products over the past decade. In August, the company said it had paid $ 250 million to acquire Bear Flag Robotics, a startup company that redesigns tractors to make them more independent. In 2017, he paid $ 305 million to buy Blue River Technology, which makes robots able to identify and eradicate unwanted plants using high-precision herbicide spray. .

The new 8R tractor may signal a greater shift in Deere’s intentions. Not only does it turn the company 's flagship product into a capable robot; it also provides an ethical circle for training new AI algorithms and developing new products.

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