John Deere is working to transform consumers’ perception of agriculture
John Deere made history this week in Las Vegas. The company’s CEO John May was the keynote speaker for the opening session at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). While it’s the fifth consecutive year Deere has exhibited at CES, 2023 marks the first time an ag technology company has presented on the main stage. May, along with other Deere experts, highlighted how technology is transforming the way we grow food.
“You may know John Deere because of its green and yellow tractors,” May says, “but what you may not be aware of is how we’ve been leading innovation for 186 years. It began when our founder, John Deere, invented the first self-scouring steel plow. This cultivated some of the most productive land in the U.S.”
Since then, Deere has been continuously innovating and investing to help farmers and contractors do their jobs even better. They have expanded beyond agriculture into earth-moving, road building, and even backyards around the world, bringing the same innovations to help its customers solve their biggest challenges.
“When I began working in this industry 25 years ago, everyone focused on equipment and making that equipment larger and more powerful,” May says. “At that time, the bigger the equipment was, the more efficient it was in a field, building a highway, or at a construction site. This is fundamentally changing. Today, farming, construction, and road building are less about the size of the machines and more about technology, intelligence, and sustainability, both economic and environmental.”
That’s why in February 2022, Deere announced its Leap Ambitions, which are focused, measurable goals aligned across its customers’ operations. These ambitions are designed to boost economic value, productivity, and environmental sustainability for our customers for the rest of this decade and beyond.
“Our deep understanding of the way our customers do business is what gives us the necessary insights into the challenges they face and the opportunities to use technology to create value,” May says. “This is not new for John Deere. As I mentioned, we’ve been using technology to solve challenges for nearly 200 years and continue to innovate and move industries forward year after year.”
Today, the company leverages a vast tech stack to give its machines superhuman capabilities. This begins with its equipment – more than 500,000 connected machines – that run across more than one third of the Earth’s land surface. “You might want to think of them as robots that precisely execute jobs on the land, on roads, and at construction sites,” May says.
Within these machines, Deere has integrated displays with embedded software, GPS hardware, with precise signal correction, machine learning, cloud computing, and its digital platform, the John Deere Operations Center. May says each one of these technologies brings unique and specific benefits to its customers.
In its first year at CES, Deere focused on harvest and the technology in the combine. In 2020, the company talked about smart spraying and how Blue River’s See & Spray technology, with its cameras and artificial intelligence, will drive plant-level management.
Because CES went virtual in 2021, Deere took 50 technology reports to the farm through a hands-on experiment and virtual reality. Each reporter was sent a corn seed, a soybean seed, cotton seed, dirt, and planting instructions. The idea was to show him or her what it’s like to grow a plant.
In addition, a computer-generated simulation provided a unique perspective on how a crop is planted and the technology integrated into the machine. Outfitted with virtual reality goggles, the reporters were taken into a soil pit to learn about the importance of uniform spacing and seed depth.
Last year at CES, Deere introduced the world’s first fully autonomous tractor featuring sensors, computer vision, among other technologies.
“These tractors aren’t concept vehicles. They’re real and are being used on farms today,” May says. “If this sounds like a lot of technology, it is, but this is more than just the technology. This is about our customers, farmers, construction crews, and road builders. They’re the ones who do the work every single day of every single year to provide for all of us.
“We’re going to show you how our technology is helping one of our key customer segments, farmers, execute their jobs more efficiently and sustainably,” May continues. “I know that some of you are wondering why should you care about farmers when they represent less than 2% of the U.S. population? It’s farmers from across the world who undertake the enormous task of growing the food, fuel, and fiber we all need. They are ensuring that we not only have what we need today, but that future generations do too. This requires taking care of one of the most precious resources we have, the land.”
“Our living comes from what we produce on the land,” says northeast Arkansas farmer Travis Senter, Jr. “We have to take care of the land, so it can be most productive.”
The third-generation farmer grows nearly 2.5 billion corn, soybean, cotton, and rice plants on about 20,000 acres. “To put 20,000 acres into perspective, that’s 40% larger than the size of Manhattan,” says Deanna Kovar, Vice President, Production & Precision Ag Production Systems at John Deere.
“Taking care of the land is both something our farmers are passionate about and something they need to do to ensure the land is productive today and for future generations,” May says. “When you sit down for your next meal, I want you to think about a farmer. Their work starts the process of growing the food that many of us only see in a grocery store or delivered to our front doors.”
Farmers face a lot of challenges because agriculture is an unpredictable business. From changing weather patterns to volatile markets and labor shortages, farmers must deal with countless situations throughout the year that impact their business. Any one of those factors can affect the food that is available or unavailable for all of us. That’s the biggest challenge that they face, feeding all of us.
Over the next 25 years, the global population is expected to grow from 8 billion people to nearly 10 billion people. This requires us to produce 50% more food as both population grows and diets change around the world.
But May says it’s not just about growing more. “The amount of U.S. farmland has been declining over the past 40 years, and this trend will likely continue as the population continues to increase,” he says. “So, more people, less land, the math doesn’t work. That is the big picture and that is why I’m standing on this stage today.”
In the past, farmers would grow more by using more, bigger machines, more horsepower, more seeds, and more nutrients. This approach alone doesn’t work today. There’s less arable land, less rural labor, less time to do their jobs due weather volatility, and rising input cost.
Technology, May says, is the solution to these challenges. Technology allows farmers to create more with fewer resources. Doing more with less, that is the path forward to providing for all of us in feeding our growing world.
“That’s why we’re focused on what’s real, real purpose, real technology, real impact,” he says. “Our purpose is simple. We run so life can lean forward. That means empowering our customers to have an economically and an environmentally sustainable business that provides for themselves and their families while ensuring food security for the world. The technology you’ll see and hear about is real. It’s either being used by customers now or it’ll be used soon at scale.
“By the end of this keynote, the impact should be clear. Farmers are the bedrock of our world,” May says. “They take on grueling, unpredictable work that is essential for all of us.”
During the rest of Deere’s time on stage, May wanted the audience to think about this: John Deere is not only a manufacturing company, but it is also quickly becoming one of the world’s leading robotics and AI companies. Its solutions leverage technology like computer vision, advanced sensing and compute, machine learning, and data analytics to enable farmers to do so much with limited resources.
“The technology and innovation that John Deere will bring to the market over the balance of this decade will rival the transformation that took place when the company first began making tractors more than a hundred years ago.”
EFFICIENCY + SUSTAINABILITY
In agriculture, efficiency and sustainability go together.
“We’re creating technology that serves a real purpose to help our customers grow more with less through precision and data,” Kovar says. “This technology is built on top of the decades of advancements John Deere has been leading.”
In 1997, the company began investing in GPS technology. In the early 2000s, this technology was integrated into tractors so they could drive themselves through the field within one inch accuracy. This allowed farmers to take their hands off the wheel and focus on the critical elements of the job they’ve done.
That same decade, farmers used GPS technology to collect geospatial data on both the inputs they use throughout the year and the crops they harvested at the end of the year. “Today, farmers in more than 100 countries are utilizing these GPS technologies at tremendous scale,” Kovar says.
In the 2010s, Deere leveraged connectivity and IOT to bring all the data farmers collected into the cloud. “This data used to sit on binders on a shelf or was locked up on one of those desktop computers from 1997,” Kovar says. “By moving the data to the cloud, we have given farmers access to valuable, real-time information anywhere, allowing them to make more timely and informed decisions.”
Today, Deere is building on the foundation of the last two decades. It is now in a decade of advanced AI and computer vision that integrates precision tech and cloud-based data with robotics and CVML. While each of these technologies has transformed aspects of a farmer’s job, the combination of them has generated significant value.
“Farmers are some of the earliest adopters of technology as they’ve been side by side with John Deere and its dealers on every step in this multi-decade journey,” Kovar says. “Our dealers are vital, trusted advisors who support farmers from season to season and across generations.”
She recently joined a dealer as he visited Senter on his Arkansas farm. He manages his entire operation with just 34 machines and 20 full-time employees.
“Farming takes a lot of hours; it’s a lot of work,” Senter says. “It’s extremely more complex than what my father or my grandfather experienced. Every single day of the year, I have something do. During planting or harvest, we’ll work 16-, 18-hour days until the job’s done.”
Deere’s technology allows his operation to maximize every minute of every day. Everything from self-driving and automation to data and connectivity allows him to be more productive and efficient and save time and spend more time with family.
“When we first started using GPS 20 years, it allowed us to drive straight with our hands off the wheel, so we could check markets or the weather,” Senter says. “Automation and the sensors that are on the machines today allow us to make a lot of small changes that make a big impact. Machines allow us to put the seed exactly where it needs to go and to spray exactly where we need to spray. Every machine’s connected, and everything is uploading data to the cloud. I have access to it whenever I want no matter if I’m in the car, in the field, in a meeting, or away from home.”
Deere’s technology allows him to work faster, be more precise, and be more efficient. “What I can accomplish in an hour would’ve taken my grandfather two or three days,” Senter says. “I couldn’t imagine farming without technology. It’s critical in nearly every aspect of what I do. Technology has changed farming and has changed my life.”
Technology in agriculture is not a convenience, it’s a necessity. There are many real challenges farmers around the world are up against, like changing weather patterns, limited available labor and rising costs for inputs like seeds and fertilizer.
To illustrate why these challenges matter, Kovar talks about one of the many jobs farmers do, planting. Planting seeds is one of the most important things to get right on the farm. To maximize yields while combating the weather, farmers must do this work within an extremely narrow window of time for any year. They want to do it with precision, so they can reduce the number of seeds they plant.
“While planting, sensors place each seed in the ground at a scale and precision beyond human capacity,” she says. “With this technology, a farmer can plant thousands of seeds per second at a precise depth and distance from one another for optimum growth. And there’s a real measurable outcome from using this technology. It’s simple. If seeds aren’t planted on time or in a precise fashion, farmers will see less grain harvested at the end of the season.
“Just one bushel of corn makes 38 boxes of cornflakes. At an average of 177 bushels per acre in the U.S., that means just one acre of corn can make 6,726 boxes of cornflakes.”
Digitalization Turbocharges Data
Farming has been powered by data for decades, but now it’s turbocharged by digitalization. In-field connectivity and IOT advances have opened the door to an entirely new way of farming.
For example, the John Deere Operations Center is an opt-in cloud platform. It houses the data about a farmer’s fields and jobs that they have been collecting for years. Using the operations center, farmers draw insights, share data across their ecosystem of trusted advisors, and utilize apps with over 250 other software companies. “This allows farmers to visualize their farm and make more informed decisions to benefit their operations. Decisions in the moment, like how deep to plant seeds, decisions across a season as they determine what field to plant next and decisions from year to year as they use last year’s harvest data to determine what seeds to plant this year,” Kovar says.
With the types of advanced insights visualized by the operations center, farmers can create digital twins of their farms and test different scenarios. They can see what crops produce the best yield in each field and evaluate what to do in the future. These advancements in cloud technology combined with sensors, compute, computer vision, and robotics are ushering in a new era of farm management, moving from making broad decisions for an entire field to eventually precise plant level management.
“We are closer than ever to making it a reality that every year, farmers can individually treat each of the 3 trillion corn plants grown in the U.S.,” Kovar says. “Today, taking that concept straight to reality, John Deere’s revealing new sensor and robotic technology to help farmers fertilize the plants as they put them in the ground. You see, plants rely on fertilizer just like you and I rely on food. Without it, plants wouldn’t have the proper nutrition to produce the crops we rely on.”
ExactShot technology allows farmers to apply starter fertilizer precisely at scale with speeds up to 10 miles per hour and only where the seeds are planted. This reduces the amount of starter fertilizer farmers need by more than 60% while still allowing them to maintain the speeds they need to get the job done on time.
Let’s go through how this technology works. Today, a planter with 24 rows can plant 720 seeds of corn per second. The system moves through the field at twice the speed of legacy planters. On a good day, this single machine will plant 34 million corn seeds at precise placement and depth. While the farmer is planting seeds, a sensor will register when each individual seed is going into the ground and the robotics will spray only the amount of fertilizer needed, about two tenths of a millimeter, directly onto the seed at the exact moment that goes into the soil.
“The speed, synchronization, and precision at which this is happening in the field was previously unthinkable,” Kovar says. “The combination of sensors and robotics delivers a massive cost savings to the farmer and a significant benefit to the environment, because in the process of growing corn today, fertilizer accounts for a large portion of total greenhouse gas emissions. That means ExactShot can have an immediate measurable impact on our environment today.”
Over the past decade, Deere has taken enormous steps in advancing vision technology. In 2015, the company launched its very first vision product. It used the stereo vision system and geometric model trained to detect the edges of a rectangular target. This helped farmers more accurately transfer crops from a harvester to an adjacent wagon to move the crop from field to market.
In 2016, Deere released a vision system comprised of a binocular camera with a color detection algorithm. It detected where the crops were located within a field and complimented its GPS system by ensuring the equipment driving through a field didn’t run over and damage the crop.
Two years later, Deere began using CVML to detect the quality of grain being harvested. “To do this, we placed the camera feeding a deep convolution neural network inside the combine,” says Julian Sanchez. “This system kept the mechanical part of the machine tuned for optimal performance and it was our first experience gathering large datasets to train a machine learning model.”
Last year at CES, Deere unveiled its autonomous tractor. It uses CVML (computer vision and machine learning) and six pairs of stereo cameras to detect and identify objects. “Autonomy required us to completely rethink how we train data sets,” Sanchez says. “One of the keys to successful machine learning systems is having training datasets with representative events. But in agricultural environments, the frequency of notable events like obstacles in the middle of the field is low.
“So, we turned the problem on its head and trained the vision system to be highly effective in detecting things that are always present like soil, tree lines, and the sky. If the tractor sees something that’s not soil, tree lines, sky, it stops. Even if it’s not sure what the object is, it’s the safest thing to do,” Sanchez says.
While autonomy may have been something we’ve all been dreaming of for a while, he says the company’s newest technology is something no one anticipated. In March of 2022, Deere launched See & Spray Ultimate. It uses the CVML to detect where every weed is and applies herbicide only and exactly where it’s needed. “This is important, because weeds steal valuable water, nutrients, and sun from plants and that prevents plants from reaching their full potential,” Sanchez explains.
Since the day self-propelled sprayers were introduced in 1947, farmers have been spraying the entire field to kill weeds, because that’s what the technology allowed them to do, even if certain areas didn’t have any weeds. With See & Spray technology, farmers can now spray only the weeds, which reduces the herbicide farmers need by up to two thirds.
“This may sound futuristic but it’s not,” Sanchez says. “Farmers began using this technology last year. In the blink of an eye, a machine traveling fast enough to cover three football fields in one minute, both identifies and sprays weeds smaller than your smartphone camera lens.
“Consider this level of precision compared to the past. This technology saves time and reduces cost while avoiding unnecessary impact to the crop and land.”
How did Deere make this happen? It gave the machine eyes – 36 of them – which are attached across the sprayer’s 120-foot boom.
“Every second, these cameras scan more than 2,200 square feet of land and capture 1.2 billion pixels. If you try to match that level of sensing and processing with human eyes, it would take nearly 6,000 people. This doesn’t just happen in a lab environment. This system performs its task while moving through uneven terrain and dusty fields and crosswinds. These cameras are sealed, ultra-rugged and can see both in sunlight and shade so they can successfully operate in this harsh environment.”
Seeing doesn’t just happen with eyes or with cameras. It also relies on advanced compute.
Deere designed an embedded controller for See & Spray. Ten of these are attached to the sprayer, and they house high-performance processors that make sense of what the cameras see. These processors can handle four gigabytes of data per second, while operating in harsh environments and temperatures that often reach and sometimes exceed 100 degrees F, all while being passively cooled. These harsh conditions must be considered when technology is developed.
“The sprayer is one of the most important tools,” Senter says. “A lot of people don’t realize that weed pressure and weed control is an extreme problem we deal with. We compare it to a bully. A weed is a bully to a plant. I want to eliminate all bullies from my farm.
“If I’ve got 2 billion plants, I’ve got 20 trillion weeds. My initial reaction when I saw See & Spray technology was, it’s a game-changer that could potentially disrupt an entire market, because I only want to apply the product where it needs to go. If it detects weed versus my plant, that allows me to save money and save time.”
Senter has seen anywhere from 50% to 70% cost savings with the See & Spray Ultimate.
Whether it’s a self-driving tractor or machine that detects and sprays only weeds, or the next major innovation that only exists in our lab today, vision will continue to transform agriculture and John Deere is at the forefront of advancing these cutting edge technology,” Sanchez says.
If you take a step back and look at the real impact this technology is having in improving the environmental sustainability of agriculture on a global scale, Jahmy Hindman says it’s truly amazing.
“As John mentioned earlier, there are more than 500,000 John Deere connected machines that run across more than a third of the Earth’s surface,” says Hindman, who is Deere’s first chief technology officer, “Stop for a minute and think about that. Deere machines are literally in every corner of our planet. While these machines are doing important jobs, they’re also collecting and transmitting critical data that farmers and construction workers use to make more informed decisions.
In addition to helping Deere customers, this technology and data is also having a major positive impact on our environment. In the future, that impact will only increase.
Let’s look at a few examples. Today, farmers growing corn on the 90 million acres in the U.S. apply about 140 million gallons of starter fertilizer every year to help those seeds turn into productive plants.
“With ExactShot, we can reduce the amount of fertilizer needed by more than 60% – that’s 93 million gallons. Based on today’s prices, this can save farmers $650 million in input cost, but it also prevents that wasted fertilizer from encouraging weed growth or increasing the risk of running off the field,” Hindman says. “In addition to fertilizer, U.S. farmers also use more than 23 million gallons of herbicide annually for weed management. Using See & Spray technology, we can reduce that by up to two thirds, which equates to 15 million gallons of herbicide. This can save farmers roughly $1 billion.”
Construction and Road Building
Deere’s technology isn’t only being used in agriculture; it’s also critical in construction and in road building.
Last year, the company’s equipment was responsible for paving over half a million lane miles of road. That’s enough road to circle our planet 20 times. Using the technology available today, those lane miles can be installed using Deere’s cold in place recycling methods and equipment, which save up to 90% of any road material. Hindman says this has the potential to save up to a billion tons of asphalt production and 53 million tons of CO2 equivalent.
“Speaking of roads, there are a lot of electric vehicles on display at CES,” Hindman says. “Some may find this statement a bit controversial, but the path to a sustainable future does not rely only on electrification of vehicles. Biofuels like ethanol, renewable diesel, which may be created from plants, must be just as much a part of the solution, because large scale electrification of high horsepower equipment faces steep technical challenges, which makes an electric-only future unlikely in the near term.
“On the farm, we’re dealing with large, powerful, and highly automated or autonomous machines. They run continuously for more than 12 hours a day,” he continues. “They’re not just driving from point A to point B, they’re also performing a number of jobs that require extreme precision and a significant amount of power. A typical day’s work for the tractor, includes operating continuously for 14 hours at 75% of its peak power, about 230 kilowatts. That’s the energy equivalent of 38 Tesla model 3 long range batteries, or in different terms, 15,000 liters in volume and over 48,000 pounds.”
To put that in perspective, Hindman says a battery would double the weight and size of a tractor today at four times the existing cost of the tractor to produce the amount of energy required. These changes would lead to negative agronomic impacts on the farm, like excessive soil compaction.
“Biofuels produced from corn or soybean feedstock, such as ethanol and renewable diesel, generated about 50% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to their petroleum-based counterparts,” Hindman says. “Using today’s precision farming practices in the current U.S. grid power generation, biocarbon intensity rivals that of electrification. Additionally, future advancements in precision agriculture technology and sustainable agricultural practices, just like the ones you’ve heard about today, will create significant opportunity to further reduce the carbon intensity of biofuels.”
Hindman goes on to say that biofuels support a circular economy where a farmer can utilize a portion of the crops he grows, like sustainably grown grains and oil seeds, to power the various machines that he uses. Those biofuels aren’t limited to Deere machines. They can power everything from cars to semis to airplanes, reducing carbon emissions, and the pressure on all our natural resources.
“Our excitement for the future of biofuels shouldn’t take anything away from electrification,” Hindman says. “The world benefits from all of these solutions to meet our global clean energy needs.”
In the construction industry in particular, electrification is going to have an enormous impact on both workers and communities around the world. “The lower noise of electrified construction equipment in urban areas allows the work to begin earlier and to end later,” he says. “This causes less societal disruption, and it creates a safer work site for an improved ability for the workers to communicate on the job. This will result in projects getting completed faster, all the while eliminating those combustion emissions in those heavy urban environments.”
Last year Deere accelerated its focus on electrification when it acquired the majority stake in Kreisel Electric, the global leader in emerging cool battery technology. The future will bring electrified technology to enable homeowners, farmers, construction workers, and road builders to do their job more efficiently, more economically and more sustainably.
The company unveiled a new fully electric excavator powered by a Kreisel battery at CES. Through its work with Kreisel, Deere is investing significantly in industrial applications of patented battery technology that provide high performance and a longer battery life. Kreisel also have charging technology, which results in a faster and a lower cost connection to the electrical grid.
“Overall, John Deere has focused on four areas of changing power generation: biofuels, battery electric, hybrid electric, and advancements to internal combustion engines,” Hindman says. “We’re focused on all four rather than just one because we need to meet the economic and efficiency needs of our global customers. And that’s what it will take to meet the carbon reduction goals and Leap Ambitions mentioned earlier.
“Deere technologies aren’t impacting just a small part of our world, they’re impacting the entire planet,” he continues. “ExactShot, See & Spray, biofuels, electrification, and autonomy – these technologies are ready for large scale use to improve outcomes for our customers, to create the food, fuel, and infrastructure we all need and to improve our planet for future generations. We’re helping our customers do more with less. That is the real impact of our precision technology.”
CES 2023 is focused on how technology is helping solve the world’s most pressing challenges. May says John Deere is not in the business of creating technology just because it’s cool. Rather it is creating technology to address specific challenges, problems, or needs – real purpose, real technology, real impact.
“Technology is the key to driving sustainability on the farm and construction sites and empowering our customers to be more efficient and profitable in the face of significant challenges,” May says. “That’s why we’ve developed robotics that leverage machine learning and computer vision. This technology is good for our customers’ business. It’s good for the planet. It’s good for all of us. Real purpose, real technology, real impact. That’s why we run, and we’re just getting started.”