John Deere Announces First Self-Driving Tractor

by Matthew Memrick
john-deere-announces-first-self-driving-tractor

John Deere, a familiar name for farming since 1837, has gone hi-tech with its first GPS-powered self-driving auto-steering tractor.

Soon, somebody’s going to write a country song about how things were back when their tractor didn’t drive itself. 

But, in all seriousness, the Illinois-based green and yellow tractor company had put together the perfect tractor that lets farmers leave their cabs and even the field. Keep in mind, this tractor’s purpose is for tilling only and buyers don’t know the price yet. 

Self-driving Tractor In Works For Awhile

While the other tractor companies have worked on this concept for a while, John Deere said farmers would be able to monitor a tractor’s work remotely using a smartphone.

Deanna Kovar, John Deere vice president of production and precision ag production systems, told technology website The Verge that this hi-tech tractor will hit the assembly line in the fall.

John Deere and other companies have automated many farming aspects over the years. With the auto-steer systems, farmers can map the boundaries of fields, use beacons or drive around an area. Then, they use software to plot a route. Now, farmers can just sit in the tractor cab and watch. And if a correction is needed, they can make minor or slight adjustments.

Kovar said John Deere’s AutoTrac solution has worked for almost 20 years. But this recent announcement takes hi-tech farming up a notch.

Set-and-forget Farming A Viable Path?

This new tractor setup kit features six pairs of stereo cameras. They help create a 360-degree view around the tractor. The tractor computer can spot unexpected rocks and other obstacles when it figures things out.

All farmers, Kovar said, will have to go is get the tractor to the field, get it set, and “use their mobile phone to ‘swipe to farm.’

Oh, and they’ll have to return every eight hours to refuel and move the tractor from the field.

There’s also something about “tele-operators” or a call center of third-party operators. Those folks (it doesn’t say if they’re in India or wherever) will manually check if obstacles are false or if the problem fixes itself. If there’s a real problem, they’ll contact that farmer with an app alert.

Kovar said the tractor’s algorithm knows if there are birds, but they don’t stop for birds. On the other hand, dog obstacles will need a tractor computer to control.

“We don’t want to always alert the farmer because this could be two in the morning,” Kovar said. “Part of the value of autonomy is allowing farmers to focus on other tasks.” 

Any Downsides For This New Tech?

Tilling is the tractor’s primary purpose with other functions like soil preparation and removing crop residue. But harvesting may take some time. 

And there will be other tractor issues like making sure the equipment works and if it needs to be changed over for weather conditions. The company admits there will be other issues.

The price isn’t out yet either. There are no estimates on upfront costs or annual subscriptions yet. A John Deere 8R tractor ($166,000 to $267,000, according to Farmprogress.com) and chisel power will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars likely.

Oh, and repairs are another thing. John Deere has feuded with farmers in the past about the rights to repair their own machines. More technology will probably add to the mess.

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