Intelligent Automation Is the Future of Farming

The global food demand is increasing, and farmers are increasingly enduring labor shortages and unpredictable weather conditions. AI and machine learning are helping farmers fight these challenges with automated equipment and computer vision, including John Deere’s new autonomous tractor.

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Image Credit: John Deere

The world population is expected to increase by about two billion people by 2050. As a result, the global food demand is anticipated to increase by 50 percent, straining our agriculture industry. John Deere has designed an autonomous tractor, compatible with other John Deere automated equipment, to help reduce the strain on farmers. 

John Deere’s autonomous tractor relies heavily on intelligent computer vision. It uses six pairs of stereo cameras, both front and rear facing, for 360-degree obstacle detection. Machine learning algorithms use the images captured by the cameras to determine objects in the tractor’s surroundings. The cameras use RGBD (Red, Green, Blue, Depth) to understand the tractor's location and environment.

The cameras capture a raw image, depth map, ML model, and pixel confidence image simultaneously, and then pass the images through a deep neural network for classification. This way, the autonomous tractor can differentiate between land, trees, sky, foreign objects, and the tractor and its attachments. If an unidentified object is detected, the tractor immediately stops. The stereo cameras also allow the tractor to work in low visibility weather conditions, something that hinders human workers. 

The autonomous tractor uses a geofence and a GPS guidance system to monitor its location, ensuring that it only operates in authorized areas, as outlined by the farmers. According to John Deere, the autonomous tractor works within less than an inch of accuracy. 

Camera images taken by the John Deere autonomous tractor.

Image Credit: John Deere

Plowing Forward

Farmers configure the autonomous tractor via the John Deere Operations Center mobile app. After inputting the size of the field, the type of soil and crop, and other specifications, the farmer can send the tractor to work. The autonomous tractor can work independently day and night using LED lights, although it does need assistance refueling about every eight to ten hours. Farmers can connect the TruSet™-enabled chisel plow to the autonomous tractor to till soil. 

Farmers do not need to be near the autonomous tractor when it’s working. Instead, they can remotely monitor the tractor’s progress using the John Deere Operations Center mobile app. The John Deere Operations Center offers live video and images and real-time metrics about the tractor’s fuel level, the percentage of work completed, and crop data.

If the autonomous tractor detects a foreign object, or if maintenance or other issues arise, farmers are notified via the John Deere Operations Center. Farmers can also adjust the geofence or the tractor’s speed using the mobile app. The autonomous tractor is also started and stopped using the mobile app. Data from the John Deere Operations Center can also help farmers optimize production and plan for the next season.

Senior officers from John Deere discussed the benefits of the autonomous tractor at the John Deere CES 2022 Press Conference in January. To them, the autonomous tractor helps increase productivity, profitability, and sustainability for farmers. By using an autonomous tractor, farmers can spend more time performing other tasks, helping to optimize production. Farmers can also spend less time in the field, increasing their time at home and reducing burnout from long working hours. 

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