Deere unveils autonomous tractor

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John Deere’s autonomous tractor can be started with a smartphone and will stop whenever it detects a strange object, the manufacturer says

Deere unveils autonomous tractor
The autonomous tractor will first be used for seeding in the United States


John Deere has unveiled an autonomous version of its 8R tractor which it says will be available for farmers in the USA later this year.

Launched at the Consumer Technology Association CES event 2022 in Las Vegas in January, the autonomous tractor comes equipped with a GPS system and a TruSet enabled chisel plow, as well as six pairs of stereo cameras that can calculate distances and enable 360-degree obstacle detection.

Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in approximately 100 milliseconds and determines if the machine continues to move or stops, depending on if an obstacle is detected.

The autonomous tractor is also continuously checking its position relative to a geofence, ensuring it is operating where it is supposed to, and is within less than an inch of accuracy.

John Deere senior director of autonomous systems Willy Pell told CES attendees that achieving high degrees of both safety and productivity had been the core challenge of the project.

"While a farm has fewer variables that an open road, building a production-worthy vision system requires a world class machine learning research team and many hard-fought innovations," he says.

These included a new anomaly detection system that automatically stops the tractor when the cameras encounter new objects that do not fit within the tractor’s normal class of object, derived from some 50 million images collected from farms across the USA. 

"While the sparsity of relevant data is a disadvantage in agricultural autonomy, the ability for the tractor to stop is a huge advantage," Pell says.

"When we encounter an anomalous object we stop. We do not have to worry about being rear ended by another driver, and the result is a 40,000 ton (36,287 tonne) machine that is going to be running safely and autonomously within farmers’ fields this year."

Deere says the tractor can be operated easily by transporting the machine to a field and configuring it for autonomous operation – starting the machine with a mere swipe on a smartphone when using John Deere Operations Center Mobile.

"While the machine is working the farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks, while monitoring the machine's status from their mobile device," the company says. 

John Deere Operations Center Mobile provides access to live video, images, data and metrics, and allows a farmer to adjust speed, depth and more.

Deere also said that all performance and field data would be sent to the John Deere Operations Center to help farmers keep tabs on how the job was being done, emerging technology director Julian Sanchez says.

"These vehicles are essentially creating a digital footprint of the farm and documenting the decisions they make to grow better crops every year," he says.

In the event of any job quality anomalies or machine health issues, farmers will be notified remotely and can make adjustments to optimise the performance of the machine, he adds.

Deere aims for the tractor’s first job to be seeding during the US Spring, with company vice president of production and precision agriculture Deanna Kovar saying the machine would help improve quality of life for farmers.

"What is unique about this tractor isn’t just the technology, it is that it is working today and is ready for production. This isn’t a concept machine, this isn’t a demo, this is a working machine that will be available later this year to farmers and it will transform their lives," she said.

"In the future, John Deere autonomous agricultural equipment will also execute other jobs that farmers need to do throughout the year, and with every job, the machines will be optimised for a number of factors."

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