How tractor seller John Deere became a technology company
Internet of Things (IoT)

How tractor seller John Deere became a technology company

Agriculture is undergoing a revolution. IoT sensors are making it easier to grow more crop with less, while drones and robots are bringing more automation to the industry. While you wouldn’t traditionally label tractor maker John Deere as a technology company, the 181-year-old manufacturer is evolving into exactly that, Silicon Valley presence and all.

Since 1837, John Deere has made and sold tractors and other agricultural machinery such as cotton pickers and combine harvesters. In 2018, the company is transforming itself and its products into sensor-loaded, data-fuelled, AI-powered agritech platforms making farming smarter and more efficient.


From selling tractors to becoming a technology company

“Cornfields have approximately thirty thousand plants in an acre,” says Than Hartsock, Director for John Deere Precision Agriculture Solutions. “Today we manage all those thirty thousand plants on that acre about the same; we assume they're all at the same growth stage, and they all need the same nutrients, and they're all the same shape.”

“Tomorrow through computer vision, AI, and smart machines, we are going to diagnose that plant is responding to that soil in this way, and therefore we should treat it like this.”

John Deere’s acquisition of California machine learning startup Blue River Technology late last year brought the company to the attention of many technology media outlets. But the company’s transformation into a data-driven company started with the acquisition of NavCom Technology back in 1999.

“We started putting high-precision GPS receivers into our large machines in the early 2000s that allowed them to steer themselves. Any big tractor or combine that we sell and have been for the last 12 plus years, you hit a button and it steers itself.”

This automated way of driving tractors meant more accurate lines within fields and less overlap, as well as enabling farmers to work for longer without being as tired at the end the day. Today, Blue River’s smart spraying technology -- which identifies weeds amongst crops using computer vision and sprays those individual unwanted plants -- is an example of how agritech is becoming smarter. Less herbicides are better for the environment and cheaper for the farmer.

Deere is far from the only company undergoing such a transformation of its vehicles. Daimler is developing autonomous snowploughs, Komatsu and Volvo are both working on autonomous vehicles for the mining industry, while US startup Built Robotics is offering an autonomous bulldozer to help excavate construction sites.

“Technology is at the center of the value proposition that we deliver. You'll be hard-pressed to find a big agricultural machine that we that we ship out of our factories that doesn't have IoT-type sensors, that isn't connected to the cloud, and is not being used to manage the operations.”

“What we're seeing as the next frontier for us is integrating IoT connectivity, AI, and machine learning into the machine.”


Agricultural data platforms

As part of Deere’s move to becoming a data company, it started to connect its machines into its own cloud platform, called the John Deere Operations Center. From here, farmers can monitor and operate machinery, check the health of crops, as well as check environmental conditions.  The platform can connect to onboard telematic sensors and offer predictive maintenance on machines, which reduces the possibility of costly downtime on the machines. 

“Technology is essentially scaling their management,” says Hartsock. “Either being able to manage more acres if farmers are in a growth mode, or to optimize and go super deep at the plant level.”

The platform also has APIs that companies can plug into that link with the data being generated on the farm. Whether it’s satellite imagery, drone integration, or visualization tools, farmers can use the data to make more informed decisions and manage their farming operations more efficiently.

Today the company has upwards of 70 partners that connect into Deere’s Operation Center APIs, ranging from smaller startups such as Precision Hawk and Green Aero Tech to what Hartsock describes as the large “Monsantos, Syngentas, and the Du Ponts of the world”. 

“It's not enough to just build your own solution -- walls and silos is not the future. You have to make sure the platform has access and interoperability with others. That's at the core of our approach.”

Again, many companies involved in vehicles are quickly looking to become data platforms. In 2016 Ford launched its Smart Mobility subsidiary, dedicated to services and apps around driving and logistics, which its European head said could equal the rest of the business in revenue by 2020.


How John Deere is managing changing cultures

Despite being at the company for over 16 years, Hartsock still says he’s comparatively new at the company compared to many. While that’s not at all unusual in large legacy companies, it doesn’t lend itself to embracing the agile and ever-changing world of technology. So, as part of its effort to change the makeup of the company beyond simply acquiring technology companies, Deere opened its own innovation lab in downtown San Francisco last year.

“The problem is not so much we've got to convince developers that John Deere's not old and stodgy or that we're cool, we just have to get a chance to tell them about the type of things we're working on.”

“We've got the John Deere Lab there as a tech and talent hub, and what we're finding is that people are attracted to our mission of solving agricultural problems around improving food availability and food quality using AI.”

To foster this idea of innovation and actually integrate this new talent into the company, Hartsock is part of the company’s Intelligent Solutions Group and designed to be the interface between the technology units and the parts of the business that build the physical products such as combines and planters.

“We work hand in hand. They know their machine and the job it does, we know the tech, and together we build this integration.”


Fighting the farmers

Outside of its acquisition of a cool AI startup, the main reason John Deere has been in the technology press is the company’s stance when it comes to the Right to Repair. The company prefers its users not to hack into their machines -- one of many including Apple -- and instead wants them to use its network of licensed maintenance crews.

When asked about the company’s stance on the issue, Hartsock is unsurprisingly diplomatic.

“We want farmers to be able to repair and maintain their machines in the way that they want to. Historically we have, we do today, and we will in the future -- that's core to agriculture.”

He adds that the company already provides manuals, access to the information and the know-how to maintain and uphold these machines.

“But that said, there's embedded software and code that's been through rigorous testing, that's designed for purpose to meet safety, reliability, and regulatory [emissions] requirements, and essentially it's those embedded controllers that are the ones that are most sensitive to disruption.”

According to advocacy group, 17 US states are now weighing Right to Repair bills that would allow consumers (and farmers) to repair their systems themselves without voiding warranties or agreements, and require companies to provides more tools and documentation of their systems.

“Our position is consistent with leading OEM organizations, and I think we're approaching this in a consistent way both across the industry and in the way that we have historically.”


Also read:

From the 1800s to today: The world’s oldest technology companies

InfoShot: Self-driving everything


Post early-adopters, drones need to prove their worth to industries

AgTech startup Strider sees smarter farming beyond Brazil

Drone software gives offline farmers real-time images


Ford thinks beyond cars for future mobility

Connected Cars World: Auto makers still adapting to a changing market

Driverless cars will change everything, automakers still at ease


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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