It’s not often you hear the words “John Deere” and “controversy” together, but that’s exactly what is coming to pass as the agricultural staple looks to debut its first fully autonomous tractor.
Equipped with six pairs of stereo cameras and AI, John Deere’s new 8R tractor can both perceive its environment and navigate, according to a new writeup by Wired. It relies on neural network algorithms analyzing data streaming into its cameras.
In fact, it can even “find its way to a field on its own when given a route and coordinates, then plow the soil or sow seeds without instructions, avoiding obstacles as it goes,” the report says.
This is a far cry from the autonomous tractors available today, many of which can only operate in limited situations.
Jahmy Hindman, Deere’s chief technology officer, said at CES 2022: “It’s a monumental shift. I think it’s every bit as big as the transition from horse to tractor.”
The benefits of such tractors are obvious: they could help lower labor costs for farmers significantly. The negative consequences around such tractors includes the very same labor that would be threatened from the innovation.
Technical issues with the tractor have “largely been solved,” according to Qin Zhang, director of the Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems at Washington State University.
The question now is whether some farmers find the tractor either too expensive or too difficult to program. And not everybody is on board with the innovation, Wired noted. Kevin Kenney, an agricultural engineer who has criticized Deere’s limits on farmers’ ability to repair their own equipment, says that the tractors could make farmers more reliant on Deere for repairs, similar to the way newer vehicles need to be taken to the dealership more than they used to.
“I’m all for innovation, and I think John Deere is a helluva company, but they’re trying to be the Facebook of farming,” he said.
Its autonomous tractor could just be the beginning, too. Wired says that the introduction of this tractor also “provides a virtuous cycle for training new AI algorithms and developing new products.”
Deere hasn’t disclosed a price for its new tractor yet.