John Deere Doubles Down on Silicon Valley and Robots

There’s so much of speak about bringing Silicon Valley–fashion innovation to America’s heartland. But when the heartland wants tech, it nonetheless involves Silicon Valley.

On Thursday, John Deere introduced that it might purchase Bear Flag Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup that makes totally autonomous tractors for farms, for $250 million.

Bear Flag retrofits common tractors with sensors, management techniques, computer systems, and communications techniques wanted to function autonomously. The firm’s tech lets a lone farmer remotely oversee a fleet of robotic tractors autonomously tilling a area.

“John Deere putting their stamp on this kind of fully autonomous technology means it’s really coming,” says George Kantor, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University who focuses on using robots in agriculture. He provides that autonomous tractors are particularly essential as a result of the machines are utilized in so many various areas of farming.

Some tractors are already able to following GPS-guided paths autonomously, however Bear Flag’s tech removes an individual from the tractor cab fully. The firm has borrowed improvements developed and commoditized via the self-driving automotive business. It makes use of lidar and laptop imaginative and prescient not solely to navigate but in addition to research the soil behind a tractor.

“We use AI to analyze sensor input that predicts failure and can see beyond what a human can see,” says Aubrey Donnellan, cofounder and COO of Bear Flag Robotics.

The acquisition is the newest signal that John Deere, based in 1837, sees automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence as essential elements for the way forward for farming. The tools producer paid $305 million to acquire Blue River Technology, one other Silicon Valley firm that made clever weed-killing robots, in September 2017.

“For technologists interested in autonomous vehicle development and robotics, this is a field that is going to develop quite rapidly,” says Daniel Leibfried, director of autonomy and clever options at John Deere.

Machines have lengthy been utilized in agriculture, however the business is now experiencing a surge in new functions of automation, as advances in AI and robotics permit processes to be automated in new methods. Many consultants predict that extra automation shall be wanted to satisfy rising demand for meals and labor shortages, and to mitigate environmental harm that may include extra intensive farming.

On some farms, drones now autonomously analyze crops to estimate yields or spot indicators of illness. A growing catalog of robots can carry out extra advanced farmwork within the area, together with machines that may harvest crops, take away weeds, and milk livestock. Startups akin to Iron Ox and Bowery are creating greenhouses the place meals manufacturing is optimized utilizing sensors, robotics, and AI.

Some easy work nonetheless stays out of robotic attain. Picking grapes or tomatoes, for example, is likely to be easy (and low-paid) work for people, however this can be very troublesome for robots to grasp.

“Eventually there will be robots that do those kinds of things too,” Kantor says. “And they will need to either be towed by or integrated into the type of autonomous tractor that Bear Flag is making.”

Revenue from agricultural robots is predicted to develop 19 % yearly between 2018 and 2026 to $16.6 billion, according to Research Drive, an analyst agency.

Increased agricultural automation might probably have an effect on employment. Farming nonetheless accounts for roughly 2.6 million US jobs, based on figures released by the US Department of Agriculture in October 2020.

But Ali Moghimi, an assistant professor at UC Davis who teaches “precision agriculture,” says robotics and AI are prone to be adopted extra slowly in agriculture than different industries due to the complexity and the cyclical nature of farming. But he believes automation is inevitable, not solely as a result of it could enhance productiveness but in addition as a result of it could assist restrict environmental harm by, for example, routinely detecting overuse of nitrogen fertilizer.

“Recent advances in AI are going to be a game changer,” in farming, Moghimi says. “This is the path we have to go down.”

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