Is Autonomous Equipment the Future of Farming?

by Brynna Sentel
5 minute read
A self driving tractor drives at dusk

It’s no secret that over the years, production agriculture has become increasingly more technologically advanced – especially with the rapid growth of artificial intelligence capabilities. From enhanced seed varieties to precision farming and improved data collection, these advancements show no signs of stopping. So, what’s the next big tech that could be hitting farmers’ fields in coming years?

Meet John Deere’s New Autonomous 8R Tractor

Earlier this year, agricultural manufacturing company John Deere revealed its new, fully autonomous tractor. The autonomous 8R tractor leverages many foundational technologies that have been in the market for many years such as AutoTrac and AutoTrac Turn Automation. 

The autonomous8R tractor uses these foundational technologies with the addition of six stereo cameras and machine learning technology that enables the tractor to see 360 degrees around it and make decisions based on the software. The machine learning software has been trained using millions of images so the camera system can see and recognize obstacles in the field, prompting an immediate stop and notification to the farmer of the detected obstacle. 

From the John Deere Operations Center mobile app, the farmer can then see what the tractor sees and make a decision based on the obstacle for the machine to shut down, move around the obstacle, or continue the operation as planned.    

Where to Find the Autonomous 8R Tractor

The autonomous 8R tractor is not currently available for purchase but will be used by a small group of initial customers in the fall of 2022 within a defined geography. John Deere plans to continue to develop and expand the technology in new crop systems, with new implements, and additional machine types.

In the meantime, there are ways for dealers and customers to ready themselves for this technology. John Deere highly encourages leveraging the Automation 4.0 activation on Gen4 displays, John Deere Operations Center and Operations Center Mobile app, and John Deere tillage implements and TruSet technology as all will be required to utilize autonomy in the future. 

When it comes to adopting new technology, there’s always a learning curve. John Deere is working to make the tractor very user friendly and will be working closely with customers on the user experience and dealers to ensure they receive the training necessary to operate, service, and sell the machine to customers. 

The autonomous tractor must be moved from field to field by an operator. As the system arrives to the field, the operator will be responsible for the set-up of the equipment for that field. Upon the completion of set up, the farmer can step away and approve autonomous operation by simply swiping right in the Operations Center Mobile App. The farmer can then leave the field and allow the tractor to execute its job. 

8R Tractor Pricing

Pricing information for the tractor is still being worked out but John Deere plans to announce the information as the product comes to market.

Prioritizing Farmer Safety

Safety is certainly a top priority as this new machine is brought to market and in fact, is designed into the technology. In order to ensure that the system is safe and reliable, John Deere has implemented the following safety measures:

  1. The tractor has 360-degree obstacle detection to detect and interpret its surroundings (thanks to the stereo cameras) while the machine is moving. If the machine is ever in doubt or a foreign object appears in its vision, the tractor will stop immediately and send a notification to the manager’s Operations Center Mobile app for the farmer to determine necessary action. 
  2. The system is constantly checking its global positioning and ensuring that it is located within its authorized field boundary. The autonomous 8R tractor must have a field boundary in which to operate and cannot operate outside the defined boundary. 
  3. The machine is equipped with many levels of redundant safety systems. 

What the 8R Tractor Means for the Future of Farming

As innovative as a fully autonomous tractor may be, it also has a direct impact on the future of farming. Autonomy in agriculture will play a crucial role in filling labor shortages on many farming operations. The fully autonomous tractor will allow farmers and/or their labor force to focus on other crucial tasks while it executes their field operations and increases the farm’s overall productivity.

The tractor can operate 24/7, allowing work on the farm to continue to be completed while operators rest, do other tasks during the busy season, and even spending more time with their families. 

Overall employment of agricultural workers is projected to grow 1 percent from 2019-2029, slower than the average for all occupations. On top of it, available labor is lacking when farmers need it the most. While the need for farmers will never disappear, as farms become more complex, autonomy will allow these farmers to better manage their entire operation with precision at scale and enable their workforce to focus on other high value tasks.

Farmers and operators often face time demanding seasons that require many more hours of work per day. Autonomy will help lessen this burden on farmers, allowing them to spend more time with their families and protect their well-being – while still feeding the world.

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