How the Ag Industry is (and has been) Driving Automation in Transportation

By Ganesh Jayaram, VP of Information Technology, John Deere

Ganesh Jayaram, VP of Information Technology, John Deere

Over the last decade, the automotive industry has gone through an immense transformation with the introduction of self-driving cars brought on by new technologies such as cloud computing, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. While many still look at this technology as nascent, the introduction of vehicle autonomy isn’t actually as new as it may seem. The agriculture industry was one of the first to develop and experience the benefits of precise guidance solutions and highly automated vehicles in order to improve efficiency on the farm.

While automotive companies are starting to test out autonomous solutions on the road, these types of technologies have been applied to real-world scenarios on the farm for decades. Despite an often outdated view of how advanced farming is today, agriculture has long been one of the most prescient industries in the world, offering a glimpse into the future of mainstream technology. From reinventing hand tools to the introduction of mechanization and even guidance, agriculture has been at the forefront of technological revolution, getting there before many other industries.

To truly understand where automation is headed, again we look to the farm, with the introduction of precision ag technology. Decades ago, farmers used to look at harvest maps, which show farmers how much yield each section of their field produced, at the end of each season, evaluate the end result, and use their findings to determine what needed to be done differently the following year. With just one planting season per crop a year, farmers only have approximately 40 tries over their whole careers to get it right. With so many variables and decisions to be made throughout the farming cycle, the risks for experimentation are high and innovation is the key to manage as many of those variables as possible.

 We’re starting to see what can happen when you combine automated machines with advanced AI technology and promote profit for farmers 

In the 1980s, GPS devices and computers were introduced into farm machinery to equip farmers with tools that allow them to understand the factors that influence yield. Satellite technology was also implemented to help farmers plot courses that they could drive manually. While these advancements decreased costs and time spent on the field substantially, it wasn’t until 15 years later that we saw similar systems applied that could guide the tractors automatically. Using GPS technology and correction signals, the technology could now guide vehicles to a repeatable process through the field within an inch of accuracy, allowing the operator to focus on additional operational activities in the cab—like monitoring yield during harvest. As new advancements were introduced into equipment, they transformed from farm tools to technologically advanced, smart machines.

Fast forward a couple decades later and agriculture is leading the charge as a technologically advanced industry. Hundreds of thousands of highly automated vehicles are now in operation across the globe, leveraging connected and autonomous technologies to improve productivity and make better decisions with fewer resources, increasing sustainability efforts and decreasing downtime. As more industries like the automotive look to implement autonomous technology, they ought to look to the farm for key best practices.

And yet, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible. Take a look at AI, for example. We’re starting to see what can happen when you combine automated machines with advanced AI technology, accelerated by John Deere’s acquisition of Blue River Technologies. This partnership provides the ability to see and manage each plant individually, understanding and addressing what each one of the plants needs to thrive and giving farmers the ability to think about profit and investment at the level of each of those plants.

As more of this technology gets integrated into automated machines, we can imagine a combine or tractor with implement that’s fully equipped with sensors and AI that tracks data, analyzes it and delivers insights to the farmer for real-time evaluation on how to be the most productive and efficient as possible. We will continue to see things become more connected, more precise and more advanced.

But will we ever reach full autonomy? While we’ve proven that the technology is there, the question is now whether customers are ready for it. For the ag industry, we don’t believe that the farmer will ever be removed completely from the picture. While the majority of farmers have fully embraced automation into their daily routines, there is a connection to the land that simply can’t be replaced with technology. In the case of the automotive industry, it’s too early to tell whether full autonomy will be accepted amongst consumers. However, it’s clear that there’s been a dramatic transformation over the last two decades when it comes what’s possible, and we can only imagine where we will be 20 years down the road.

While we’re starting to see automotive makers make tangible advancements in self-driving technology, you can look to the agriculture industry’s history to see where those developments first started. Although the demands of the customer may differ between the two industries–whether it’s a farmer who is looking for his machine to maximize its use of the land or a businessman looking to get a head start on work on his way to the office–it will always come down to the capabilities of the machine and its role in the driver’s life.