More precisely, it is John Deere 8R self-propelled tractor who can plow fields, avoid obstacles and plant crops with minimal human intervention. It looks like any other John Deere tractor – it’s green and yellow – but there are six pairs of stereo cameras that use artificial intelligence to scan the environment and maneuver accordingly. The farmer also does not have to be close to the machine to operate it, because there is a smartphone application that controls everything. The tractor goes on sale later this year, just in time for the extra special season of the robotic harvest.
“In my opinion, that’s a big deal,” Santosh Pitla, an associate professor of advanced machine systems at the University of Nebraska, told Recode. John Deere equipment makes up more than half of all agricultural machinery sold in the United States, and even the simple fact that it puts an autonomous tractor on the market will change the way agriculture works. “That’s great news,” Pitla said, “and that’s good news.”
This is obviously a big deal for John Deere, but it also represents a huge step forward for the precision agriculture movement as a whole. Simply put, precision agriculture is a concept which uses computers, data collection and satellite imagery to build a strategy to maximize farm production. Autonomous agricultural equipment such as soil sensors, specialized drones and self-propelled tractors is key to a future in which we can produce more crops with less effort and less environmental impact. But who is in charge of that future and who benefits from it has yet to be determined.
There is reason to believe that farmers who own thousands of acres will be the first in line to buy John Deere new self-propelled tractors. For models from 230 to 410 horsepower, John Deere 8R tractors are large machines designed for large farms. And while the company has not said how much its new autonomous tractor will cost, the existing, non-autonomous models in the 8R line can cost over $ 600,000. John Deere says it will sell the automation system as a kit that can be installed on other tractor models. The company also says it is considering a subscription plan offer, but has not specified how much it would cost.
But even if the farmer buys the tractor immediately, it is not clear who actually owns the equipment or valuable agricultural data he collects. The latest John Deere tractors are loaded with sensors and connected to the Internet. Almost everything the machine does logs in and uploads to the cloud from a built-in cell transmitter, and John Deere has that capability to remotely shut down many of its tractors if he finds that someone has modified their equipment or failed to pay the rent. Many farmers say they are they can’t even fix tractors themselves, so as not to activate a switch that completely disables the machine. This means that they are forced to pay John Deere or its authorized services for maintenance purposes. Meanwhile, John Deere’s privacy and data policy says it can share information about farmers’ activities that its software collects with “outsiders” in certain circumstances.
“I’m all for innovation, and I think John Deere is a hell of a company,” said Kevin Kenney, an agricultural engineer and advocate for repair rights. he told Wired after John Deere announced his autonomous tractor. “But they’re trying to be Facebook agriculture.”
John Deere is not the only one working on autonomous agricultural equipment, and it is not clear that large self-driving tractors are the best use of technology. Case has the concept of an autonomous tractor which does not even have a cab for a human driver, and AGCO, which owns agricultural equipment brands such as Fendt and Massey Ferguson, is testing smaller autonomous machines, including seed planting robot it is the size of a washing machine. DJI, a popular drone manufacturer, now has an entire department dedicated to flying agricultural robots which can help with anything from crop monitoring to targeted pesticide spraying.
Numerous researchers believe that swarms of smaller machines working together are more promising for a wider circle of farmers. Pitla, a professor from Nebraska, is working on technology that would replace one 500-horsepower tractor with 10 tractors of 50 horsepower. Not only could the swarm cope better with different terrains and smaller farms, whose land may not be as uniform as large farms, but if one tractor breaks down, the others could continue to work.
“I saw farmers planting for 18 hours because the weather is perfect, the soil conditions are perfect,” Pitla said. “This is a very timely operation. So, in a way, if you have a bunch of these machines, you’re distributing the risk. ”
When you take into account the fact that the agricultural industry is facing a constant shortage of labor, which some say it’s getting worse, the concept of autonomous agricultural equipment is even more attractive. That fact could allay concerns that automation is taking away people’s jobs, but it will likely be years before we realize how widespread the adoption of automation in agriculture could be disruptive to the labor market.
Farmers and technologists hope that self-driving tractors and other autonomous agricultural equipment will usher in an era of higher yields. The driving principle behind precision agriculture is that by better understanding the soil and solving crop problems, we can achieve higher productivity of the limited amount of agricultural land in the world without negative environmental impact. This affects the growing debate over whether industrialized agriculture is recklessly driven by profit and exploitation of land, or whether farm consolidation is more efficient. With the proper introduction of autonomous agriculture technology, we could have it in both ways.
“Similar to the autonomous automotive industry, full autonomy of agricultural vehicles and equipment can also be considered an important, if not ultimate, goal in the agricultural industry,” said Abhisesh Silwal, project scientist working on agricultural robots at Carnegie Mellon University Institute of Robotics. He added that automating delicate, time-sensitive tasks such as pruning and harvesting, which usually require skilled workers, could help sustainability in the long run.
For now, while researchers are making drones and swarm bots smarter, we have John Deere and his self-driving tractor. Even if it is not convenient or affordable for every farmer, the new self-propelled machine is pushing autonomous agriculture further into the mainstream. And unlike TVs that can display NFT, this technology can actually help feed the world.
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