You might be surprised to learn that one of the biggest advocates for 5G technology is John Deere, the tractor company that you may remember from its slogan “Nothing Runs Like a Deere” and its jumping deer logo. You might also be surprised to learn that today’s John Deere looks a lot more like a tech company than a manufacturer of farm equipment.
In reality, John Deere is on the cutting edge when it comes to automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML). Last September the tractor company acquired Sunnyvale, California-based Blue River Technology for $305 million. Blue River makes a technology called “see and spray” that uses cameras coupled with ML and AI to identify plants in a field and then determine whether they need fertilizer, a pesticide, or something else. The company claims it can save up to 90 percent on the volume of chemicals being sprayed on crops.
Now imagine being able to combine Blue River’s technology with 5G. According to John Stone, SVP for the intelligent solutions group at John Deere, the potential is great. In an interview at last month’s Mobile World Congress, Stone said that John Deere is excited about what 5G holds for the company because it believes that with more bandwidth and lower latency, the company could immediately transmit data about crops so that farmers are able to make adjustments on the fly. For example, with video of crops, famers could decide whether to change settings or make adjustments to their plantings.
And the lower latency in the 5G network could make fully autonomous tractors closer to reality. Currently John Deere uses self-driving tractors but there must be a human operator in the cab. The tractor uses GPS for guidance, and Stone said the company has perfected the level of precision so there is little room for error. Stone added that the level of adoption of the self-driving tractors is very high, particularly at large farms.
Instead of driving the tractor, however, the human operator is focused on making sure the seeds are being planted correctly or the right nutrients are being sprayed on the crops. With lower latency and Blue River’s technology that process could evolve so that the human operator is eliminated from the equation. “With two-way communications, an operator could control it from another machine or another truck,” Stone said.
But Stone also notes that using 5G to closely monitor every plant and every movement of a tractor will require a tremendous amount of bandwidth because it will generate a lot of data that will have to be processed quickly and accurately. Stone said that the average farm is about 500 acres and includes about 16 million to 20 million plants. “That’s a lot of data,” he said.
John Deere also offers a lot of apps to its farmer customers through its portal. The apps can help them with everything from running their tractors to managing their farms. The company works with about 80 different software companies that connect to John Deere’s farmer customers through APIs. Stone said that of the 80 companies that John Deere works with about 10 of the apps are heavily used. The rest are less popular. Nevertheless, the company, which has customers all over the world, wants to offer its farmers as many tools as possible. “We are always looking for partners with new services to offer,” he said.
John Deere is an AT&T customer and uses the service provider’s LTE network for the majority of its connections today.
Photo: The inside cab of a John Deere tractor closely resembles a control center.