Autonomous Farming 🚜
John Deere's push into automation
Year 2049 is the weekly newsletter that discusses the impactful innovations and discoveries shaping our future.
If this was forwarded to you, subscribe for free to get a new story in your inbox every Friday.
Comic: An autonomous tractor encounters a friendly stranger
Story: John Deere’s push into autonomous farming
What we’re covering today:
The problems farmers are currently facing
How John Deere is shifting to automation
A look at John Deere’s first fully autonomous 8R tractor
The benefits of automation in farming
Challenges and question marks
Farmers need lots of help
Farmers are society’s unsung heroes. They’re the reason our supermarket aisles are stocked and why we can have a late-night snack when we open our fridge at midnight. As you can imagine, their job isn’t easy and is even becoming harder for many reasons:
#1: Labour shortages
The share of the labour force working in agriculture is decreasing all over the world:
People aren’t as interested in farming jobs anymore, preferring to move to the city or work in other industries. In Pittsburgh, a farm is relying on part-time high school students to help them out because it can’t find enough full-time employees interested in taking a job (AP).
#2: Growing population and food demand
Although we have fewer people working in agriculture, the demand for food is only increasing.
The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, which will require a 60% increase in food production according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
More than half of the world currently lives in urban areas, and it’s expected that over two-thirds of the world population will be living in urban areas by 2050 (Our World in Data). This makes it even harder for farmers to find labour.
To solve these problems, farms need higher productivity and lower reliance on manual labour. These have been the driving forces behind Precision Agriculture, and more specifically Autonomous Farming. Precision agriculture is a huge topic, so let’s focus on autonomous farming for today.
John Deere’s push into autonomous farming
John Deere is one of the biggest manufacturers of agricultural machinery. For a company that was founded in 1837, it’s showing us that it can still innovate and adapt to the changing dynamics of its industry.
Bear Flag Robotics for $250 million in 2021. The company specializes in retrofitting existing tractors with autonomous systems.
A majority stake in Kreisel Electric for an undisclosed amount in 2021. The Austrian company produces electric batteries for vehicles.
Blue River Technology for $305 million in 2017. The company created an autonomous robot that can precisely spray unwanted plants with herbicides.
John Deere has been a fan of automation for a long time. It has been integrating GPS-guided technology (not fully autonomous) into its machinery since 2008. Last week at CES, it announced its first fully autonomous 8R tractor.
Subscribe for free to get 1 new story in your inbox every Friday.
A look at the autonomous 8R tractor
What it does: soil tillage (aka digging, stirring, and overturning the soil to allow air, nutrients, and water to get deeper into the ground and reach the plant roots).
Productivity: the 8R has to be recharged every 8-10 hours of continuous use.
Cameras: 12 stereo cameras that give the tractor a 360º view to navigate the field and detect/avoid obstacles.
Navigation: the 8R uses its cameras and a computer vision algorithm to make decisions on how to navigate the field.
Easy setup: Farmers only need to put the autonomous tractor on their field and activate it using the John Deere app.
Human involvement: the tractor doesn’t need an operator, but the farmer can access and monitor live video, images, data, and metrics through the app. They can also adjust metrics such as speed and depth. If the tractor runs into any problems, the farmer is notified directly.
Future plans: John Deere wants its tractors to eventually plant seeds, apply fertilizers, and harvest crops in the next decade.
Further reading: John Deere’s CES 2022 website
The benefits of autonomous farming
Some benefits of autonomous farming are obvious, but let’s recap:
Help with labour shortage: delegating tasks to autonomous systems means farmers don’t have to worry about hiring people to do the work.
Increased productivity: these machines can run 24 hours a day which will be incredibly beneficial to farmers.
Existing equipment can be retrofitted: John Deere’s acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics shows its ambition of retrofitting old machinery, instead of making people buy new equipment. This could make the technology more accessible and affordable, although they haven’t announced what the prices are yet.
Reduce manual workload: Being a farmer requires countless hours of intense manual labour that can take a toll on you. Being able to delegate these difficult and repetitive tasks allows farmers to focus on more important aspects of managing their operations.
Reduce environmental damage: autonomous systems can be used to detect things like the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers and reduce the amounts of chemical herbicides used (because machines can apply them more accurately).
Fully electric: we love to see gasoline and diesel being used less.
Some question marks around John Deere
John Deere hasn’t announced the cost of its autonomous tractor yet. Cost may not be a problem for big farming operations, but it could be for “smallholder” farms (less than 2 acres) that make up 24% of the world’s agricultural land and provide 32% of the world’s food (Our World in Data).
FYI, a new 8R tractor can cost around $500,000 without the automation features.
As John Deere has improved its software and machinery, it has made it even harder for farmers to fix their equipment. It has been criticized for locking farmers out of its software and not allowing them to fix their equipment on their own. You can read the full story about this here.
You may recall that Apple faced similar criticism from digital activists and regulators regarding right-to-repair, and had to change its policies regarding independent repair after growing pressure from shareholders and activists. Last November, they announced that repair parts, tools, and manuals would become available to customers (Apple).
This is something I’m excited about because it’s filling a massive gap. Farmers need serious help and autonomous tech can help lift the weight off their shoulders and do the jobs that humans don’t want anymore. On top of that, I love the environmental benefits that come with full electrification and the reductions in the use of herbicides.
I’m staying optimistic about costs and right-to-repair. John Deere can’t price its technology so absurdly high that nobody can afford it, or to the point where farmers can hire people and pay them more. As for right-to-repair, Apple’s case should be a good sign that John Deere will eventually have to change its stance.
Besides producing more food to meet the increasing food demand, we need to create better systems for reducing food waste. We definitely need to produce more, but the less-talked-about problem is the need to waste less.
Thanks for reading Year 2049! Subscribe for free to receive 1 new story about an impactful innovation or discovery every Friday.
Some additional links to help you dive deeper into today’s topic:
Updates about a previous episode
Nuro, the startup creating autonomous delivery vehicles that we spoke about in Episode 4, just launched its next-generation vehicle which has twice the cargo size, temperature-controlled compartments, and an external airbag for pedestrians (in case of a collision). Watch the full announcement video.
Help me spread the word
Researching interesting topics, drawing comics, and writing this newsletter has been an absolute joy for me every week.
The best way to support me is to just share Year 2049 and invite others to subscribe!
If you missed the previous episode
or check out all previous Year 2049 episodes.
How would you rate this week's edition?