This is the strategy behind John Deere’s autonomous tractor

Photo: John Deere
Photo: John Deere

It’s been a little over two months since John Deere revealed its market ready autonomous 8R tractor series. Time to get a bit more into detail.

John Deere did choose the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas before to introduce innovations but it was rather surprising to see the company reveal its first market ready autonomous tractor on the 2022 edition of the show. Did they originally plan to reveal it at the postponed and finally cancelled Agritechnica exhibition? Who knows.

John Deere says there is great interest in their first autonomous tractor. Especially in regions with large-scale agriculture, such as North and South America, Australia and the CIS countries. To find out if and why farmers are beyond curious and actually interested in buying or renting such an autonomous tractor, Future Farming asked four farmers across the world about their opinion.

Did acquisitions accelerate developments?

John Deere would probably be the first major (tractor) manufacturer to admit that an acquisition specifically led to particular innovations but they say that Blue River Technology, acquired in September 2017, played an integral part in the development of the autonomous 8R tractor. The fact that Jorge Heraud, co-founder and former CEO of Blue River Technology is now Deere’s vice president Automation and Autonomy and took stage at the 2022 CES unveiling, is a clear illustration of this. Officially the company says “that the acquisitions of Blue River Technology and Bear Flag Robotics (August 2021) showcase Deere’s momentum and mission in bringing advanced technology to the farm.”

Why choose cameras over LiDAR?

This photo taken at the Agritechnica exhibition in 2019 shows the concept of using stereo cameras for obstacle detection. - Photo: René Koerhuis
This photo taken at the Agritechnica exhibition in 2019 shows the concept of using stereo cameras for obstacle detection. – Photo: René Koerhuis

For those following the developments of autonomous (road) vehicles and field robots it is interesting to see that John Deere choose stereo cameras over LiDAR technology for the detection of obstacles and anomalies. To date, many manufacturers of autonomous vehicles including cars and field robots, use LiDAR for this. The autonomous 8R tractor however, has six 360 degrees stereo cameras who were first to be seen on the concepts the company showed at the 2019 edition of the Agritechnica exhibition in Hanover, Germany.

“There are many paths to achieve autonomy, and the path that works best depends on the use case. Stereo cameras work just like the human eye, finding matching objects in each camera and triangulating depth, which aids in more precise mapping of the field. Stereo cameras provide 360-degree vision around the tractor”, is Deere’s official answer.

The tractor operates up to 10 mph (16 km/h) moving forward during the job of tillage. For now, the manufacturer doesn’t want to give out any information whether the tractor can drive backwards autonomously as well.

What about safety and liability?

The stereo cameras also play a determining role in the safe operation of the autonomous tractor – implement combination: “Safety is at the core of everything Deere does and is a top focus when developing autonomous equipment solutions. The autonomous 8R tractor has 360-degree obstacle detection, which allows for continuous sensor-based monitoring while the machine is moving. It uses AI, cameras and processors that detect and interpret its surroundings and safely drive the machine. By continuously checking its global position, the tractor always knows where it is, and where it has authorisation to be – such as within a field boundary – all with redundant safety systems to make sure it stays in control.”

The company doesn’t answer questions regarding liability in case something goes wrong such as the tractor driving into an employee, in a ditch, or when the implement is damaged due to a fault in the operation of it caused by the autonomous tractor.

How does it check the work being done?

The released images and video show an 8R410 wheeled tractor combined with a 2430 chisel plough and John Deere TruSet technology. Currently, the autonomous technology is solely used for tillage, but the company says it’s looking for ways to expand in the future.

When picking up autonomous operations, one of the first questions many farmers ask is how to know, to check whether the job is being executed as planned. Is the machine working at the correct depth? Is the machine dragging along crop residues? Are all seeder tubes or spray nozzles still open?

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Apparent questions to which John Deere answers as follows: “The tractor needs to be able to operate independently while communicating status updates to the farmer in real time, which is done via the app accessed with their mobile phone. For example, the machine provides automatic notifications if there are any job anomalies. The autonomous tractor can see 360 degrees around itself in various conditions. If an obstacle is detected, the machine stops and alerts the farmer who can intervene accordingly.”

The tractor is able to completely till a field including headlands independently once it’s been set up and put into the field by the farmer.

Compatible with model year 2020 onward

Alike autosteer retrofit kits, fitting an autonomous retrofit kit to an existing tractor is a very interesting way of upgrading that existing tractor to the current state of technology. There’s currently a number of universal autonomous retrofit kits that can be fitted to nearly every tractor. Their prices vary between € 38,000 ($ 43,200) and € 65,000 ($ 74,000) to upgrade basically any tractor and vehicle to an autonomous driver optional version.

Apart from offering new tractors with factory fitted autonomy, John Deere says their solution is currently designed to be retrofitted as well to model year 2020 John Deere tractors without mentioning or ruling out specifical models or ranges. If you have a model year 2020 8R for instance, then the autonomous ‘package’ combines existing technology already present on your tractor with stereo cameras, advanced computer vision, AI (artificial intelligence) and safety features.

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If you have a model year 2020 8R, the autonomous ‘package’ combines existing technology already present on your tractor with stereo cameras, advanced computer vision, AI and safety features. - Photo: John Deere
If you have a model year 2020 8R, the autonomous ‘package’ combines existing technology already present on your tractor with stereo cameras, advanced computer vision, AI and safety features. - Photo: John Deere

The company says it’s still working out specific pricing solutions that will be announced as they roll out to customers but earlier on, Jahmy Hindman, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, said: “A current 8R tractor and the 2430 chisel plough now cost over $ 500,000 and the cost of the autonomous tractor will bring a significant increase. Renting an autonomous tractor for a year could cost as much as $ 50,000.” Brazilian Grower Monique Martins Lima Silveira told Future Farming she would be willing to pay no more than 20% extra for an autonomous tractor in comparison to a conventional tractor. Until then, she and other Brazilian farmers feel that the technologies and the companies that develop them, still have work to do to convince them.

Canadian grain farmer Kenton Possberg said not to know if his farm will see completely autonomous vehicles operating without on-hand supervision in his lifetime. “The potential costs of mistakes, particularly at seeding and other critical parts of the growing season, are just too high”, he says.

Autonomous tractor only available in the US

On the other hand there’s farmers such as Andrew Slatter (Australia) and Mike Hooper (UK) who think the introduction of the autonomous tractor is a ‘fantastic step’ and that ‘autonomy is the way forward’. Mike Hooper says he’s certainly interested in what will happen with autonomous tractors in the UK but “at this stage the use of these vehicles is not allowed. I might consider using an autonomous tractor five years down the line.”

While Deere doesn’t want to get into detail about when and where their autonomous 8R tractor will be available, John Deere Europe in Walldorf announced that a launch in Europe is not planned as safety regulations currently do not allow the use of autonomous vehicles. An argument that is also used by other tractor manufacturers currently offering their autonomous tractors only in their home markets as well.

John Deere says “the autonomous 8R solution will be available for purchase later this year to a limited number of American customers and that there’s limited test machines located at their facilities.”

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René Koerhuis Precision Farming Specialist