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Deere’s autonomous tractor demonstrated the company’s competitive electronics at CES in Las Vegas. (Terry Costlow)

Deere touts software, AI tech at CES

John Deere highlighted the growing role of digital controls, becoming the first off-highway equipment maker to bring ag equipment to the CES consumer electronics conference early in January. Deere’s autonomous tractor dominated the small vehicles in the outdoor autonomous vehicle section, while a combine harvester outsized drones and personal robots on the show floor.

The S700 combine demonstrated the advanced nature of ag equipment. It uses enhanced GPS technology to guide the vehicle with accuracy of 2.5 cm (0.98 in). Guidance is enhanced by a camera that helps the vehicle navigate through crop rows. As grain is harvested, it’s monitored by a camera that checks to see that separation is handled efficiently.

“Mechanically, the S700 is not a lot different than the S600, it’s all software and technology that differentiate it,” Zachary Bonefas, senior staff engineer at Deere, told Truck & Off-Highway Engineering. “During harvesting, a computer vision system looks at the clean grain as it goes in, and the system can adjust if there’s too much plant material going in. It can also see if there’s broken grain. We’re trying to get the most grain with the least extraneous material.”

Deere opted to attend CES, which brings around 180,000 attendees to Las Vegas each January, in part to demonstrate the importance of agriculture in society. The company also hoped to enhance the electronic industry’s view of off-highway equipment, which many so-called digital citizens many see as largely mechanical. 

“By 2050, the world population will grow to 8 billion and there will be less land to grow the food they’ll need,” said John Teeple, Director of Advanced Technology for John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group. “We want more people to understand the importance of agriculture. An implicit part of being here is to interest people in ag. We want people from digital companies like Google and Facebook to see that they can take the technology they do and use it for a greater purpose—feeding the world.”

Bonefas noted that Deere is among the leaders in the rollout of artificial intelligence (AI), which was one of the hot topics at CES. While many automakers are in the early stages of implementing AI, the S700 represents Deere’s third commercial use of the technology. It uses a neural network built with FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) to adjust to the changes in operating conditions as grain is harvested. The rollout of AI will quicken as the company further integrates the 50+ employees of Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley AI company acquired in 2017.

“We’re looking at using computer vision and AI to classify weeds and precisely control the application of herbicide to weeds,” Teeple said. “That’s a fundamental breakthrough; we think it could save millions of gallons of herbicide and reduce its environmental impact. This technique also works with fertilizer, continuing our goal of doing more with less.”

Digital technologies are also being used to automate a number of tasks on the vehicle. For example, automated systems can handle the steps of turning vehicles around at the end of rows. Other repetitive functions are also being controlled by software and microcontrollers, freeing operators to focus on other tasks.

Teeple noted that ag equipment operators do many different jobs, so it will be some time before fully autonomous vehicles eliminate the need for human operators. However, digital controls can help these operators become more efficient, so fewer operators are needed.

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