We may not have flying cars as “Back to the Future” predicted we would’ve by now, but we are at a point where self-driving vehicles are moving off the roads and into the fields.
Agricultural equipment maker John Deere announced Tuesday that it developed technology to create a fully autonomous tractor. The equipment in question is a package of hardware and software that pairs machine learning with its GPS-powered auto-steer features.
While hands-free farming equipment has been in the works for years, this tech is significant since it’ll allow farmers to leave the field altogether. Yes, you read that right. This breakthrough technology, once programmed properly, will let the equipment do the work without the farmers present while they’re able to monitor things remotely using their smartphone.
Is This the First Autonomous Development?
Farming is hard work as it requires farmers to navigate the curves and difficult terrain of their land to plow or seed, all while controlling tough equipment. However, in terms of automating the equipment for driving, it’s straightforward. The controller simply follows a specific route without worrying about pedestrians or other obstacles.
Due to this, farm equipment companies have been able to automate many elements of farm driving over the last few years. Until now, the most advanced offering was auto-steer systems. With GPS technology used to locate and guide tractors, farmers could map the boundaries of their fields, which the software would use to create a route. If there were any issues, the driver in the tractor’s cab could correct as needed.
A New Dawn for Farmers
Now, with this breakthrough technology, farmers can program and forget some elements of their self-driving tractors. John Deere’s new autonomy kit has six pairs of stereo cameras that capture a 360-degree view of the area surrounding the tractor. All the footage collected by the cameras is analyzed by machine vision algorithms, which can spot unexpected obstacles.
While this tractor is technically an autonomous system, not all the work is being left up to machine learning. If the vision algorithm spots a problem while the tractor is at work, images from the cameras are sent to tele-operators, who will check to see if the issue is legitimate. In the case that it’s an issue the farmer needs to address, the operator will notify them with an alert on their mobile app. From there, the farmer can view the images themselves and decide if they want to reroute the tractor or resolve the issue in person.
While this new autonomous system is an impressive new development, it’s not ready to complete all aspects of tractor work. At the moment, the main function of this autonomous package is tillage (preparing soil for cultivation by turning over the earth, removing crop debris, or plowing material back into the field).
When Will This Tech Be Available?
John Deere has not yet released pricing information for this package, but plans to sell it as pieces to be added onto some of their more recent (and more expensive) tractor models.
For now, the system will only be offered at a select few dealers in the Midwest of the U.S. and John Deere confirmed its plans to provide assistance to farmers in the implementation.