At CES 2022, John Deere revealed the 8R autonomous tractor that is ready for large-scale production. The company uses CAN-based Isobus network(s) for interconnection of ECUs (electronic control unit) inside the tractor and between the tractor and implement.
The machine combines the 8R tractor, the Truset-enabled chisel plow, a GPS guidance system, and artificial intelligence technologies. The tractor will be available to farmers later this year. John Deere did not say how much it will cost; its most expensive current models can run up to 800 000 dollars. The company is exploring several possible models, including a subscription plan.
The autonomous tractor serves a specific purpose: feeding the world. The global population is expected to grow from about 8 billion to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, increasing the global food demand by 50 %. Furthermore, farmers must feed this growing population with less available land and skilled labor, and work through the variables inherent in farming such as changing weather conditions and climate, variations in soil quality and the presence of weeds and pests. All of these factors impact a farmer's ability to farm during the most critical times of the year.
The autonomous tractor has six pairs of stereo cameras, which enables a 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance. Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in approximately 100 ms and determines if the machine continues to move or stops, depending on if an obstacle is detected. The autonomous tractor is also continuously checking its position relative to a geofence, ensuring it is operating where it is supposed to, and is within less than an inch of accuracy.
To use the autonomous tractor, farmers only need to transport the machine to a field and configure it for autonomous operation. Using John Deere Operations Center Mobile smartphone app, they can swipe from left to right to start the machine. While the machine is working the farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks, while monitoring the machine's status from their mobile device. The app provides access to live video, images, data and metrics, and allows a farmer to adjust speed, depth and more. In the event of any job quality anomalies or machine health issues, farmers will be notified remotely and can make adjustments to optimize the performance of the machine.
Autonomy has been creeping into tractors and other farm equipment for decades, with recent advances building upon progress made in robotics and self-driving cars.
The tractor relies on neural network algorithms to make sense of the information streaming into its cameras. John Deere has been collecting and annotating the data needed to train these algorithms for several years. The manufacturer has been incorporating more AI and autonomy into its products over the past decade. In August 2021, the company said it had paid 250 million dollars to acquire Bear Flag Robotics, a startup that retrofits tractors to make them more autonomous. In 2017, it paid 305 million dollars to buy Blue River Technology, which makes robots capable of identifying and eliminating unwanted plants using a high-precision blast of herbicide.
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