The AI and machine learning innovations taking John Deere to the next level of precision agriculture

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Plenty of companies are talking about artificial intelligence and machine learning today in vague, disconnected terms. It will certainly influence our strategy; not sure how, but everything’s coming up AI, right?

As a pleasant antidote to all that bluff and bluster, how about this from John Stone, senior vice president of the Intelligent Solutions Group at agricultural manufacturing giant John Deere? “AI and machine learning is going to be as core to John Deere as an engine and transmission is.”

Make no mistake about it, these are certainly exciting times for the 180-year-old Deere & Company. The company has in the past several months acquired Blue River Technology, a machine learning-centric startup, as well as opened up a lab in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Yet this is just the way things have been done for some time at the company – it’s just the technology has changed with it.

Than Hartsock, director of precision agriculture solutions at John Deere, has been involved with the company for much longer than his almost 17-year tenure, having grown up on a commercial grain farm in Ohio. In the late 1990s, his education – Hartsock has degrees in soil and crop science – involved working on projects around soil sensing technologies. Deere acquired NavCom Technology, a provider of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology, at around the same time. “It was clear, even when I was in high school, that John Deere was uniquely committed to precision agriculture,” says Hartsock.

It was the Internet of Things long before anyone came up with a proper name for it. Yet this initial investment translates to a serious advantage for the company today. “Those early investments have allowed us to, I would say, position the integration of those components into our equipment into our machines, across machines, and into our dealerships,” explains Hartsock. “It went from ‘okay, this is something Deere is doing [and] it may not be completely clear why we’re doing it’, [and] now it’s at the forefront of our company. It’s how we think about our value proposition to the industry, to farmers, crop producers, and customers.”

No stone is left unturned, no crop is left unfurled – and this is where Blue River comes in. The company provides what it calls ‘see and spray’ technology, which utilises machine learning to process, in real-time, images of weeds and crops and tell the sprayer what and where to spray. It makes for a vast improvement on anything a human can do – but it remains important to keep human expertise.

“Farmers, and their advisors and contractors – these are individuals that bring decades and generations of knowledge about the practices, about the land that they farm,” says Hartsock. “The way we see it is the technology – even artificial intelligence and machine learning – provides them the tools to essentially extend and scale their knowledge.

“Imagine the smart spraying scenario… you could imagine an agronomist, a farmer needing to come into that field ahead of time,” Hartsock adds. “What’s the state of the crop? How much input do I want to invest in this crop at this stage? The machine is going to be able to discern between weeds and crops, but I need to decide economically, agronomically, how much I want to invest.”

Hartsock will be speaking at IoT Tech Expo Global in London on April 18-19, discussing how agriculture has become a prime example of optimising on connected technologies. Inside the industry technological advancement has never been clearer – but what about outside it?

Take self-driving cars as an example. You can’t move for hype and headlines around them, but what can they actually do today? Compared to a smart tractor, one can argue it’s mostly child’s play – and Hartsock wants to make clear how smarter machines and the IoT have ‘infiltrated’ agriculture.

“When you look at a planter and a tractor, in many cases, nearly all cases, that planter or that seeder will have a sensor on every row that’s measuring every seed and every row that’s dropped into the soil,” says Hartsock. “It will have a sensor that measures the motion of the planter row unit to make sure the row unit is keeping in close contact with the soil, and if it’s not maintaining contact, the sensor informs an actuator to apply more pressure to the row unit.

“That’s just the planter,” he adds. “The tractor is equipped with many sensors around the engine and transmission, and then that tractor, like most of our large ag machines, is equipped with a 4G modem that then provides connectivity between those sensors and data that’s being acquired, and then connected to the cloud.

“Once the data gets to the cloud we give the user, the farmer, the contractor, the authority over the data to dictate control and share with other partners and other companies,” Hartsock says. “You really then have this ecosystem that evolves, develops, for usage of the data… all generated out of the work that’s being done in the field by that smart machine.”

Than Hartsock will be speaking at IoT Tech Expo Global, in London on 18-19 April. Find out more about the event here.

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Deere & Company harvests Blue River Technology in smart farming drive

Deere & Company harvests Blue River in smart farming drive

Agricultural machinery manufacturer Deere & Company, better known as John Deere, has announced it will acquire Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley-based specialist in machine learning and robotics for precision agriculture, for $ 305 million.

Blue River’s ‘see-and-spray’ robots are fixed to tractors and use computer vision to identify plants in a field, to ‘see’ if they are in need of fertilizer, pesticide or other crop management procedures. The robots are primarily used on lettuce, cotton and other specialty vegetable crops.

Read more: John Deere ploughs furrow as Industrial Internet pioneer

Heavily backed

Blue River had previously raised some $ 31 million in venture capital funding and claims that its ‘precision farming’ technology can save farmers up to 90 percent of the volume of chemicals they might use with more traditional approaches. And if farmers are being more efficient in their use of fertilizer or pesticide, presumably, then they may free up money to invest in more machinery.

According to Blue River’s website, the company is also developing a ‘LettuceBot’ for “precision lettuce thinning” and a drone imaging system that collects data from fields.

“Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level,” said Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology. “We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.”

Read more: Agtech start-up Arable to measure crops and weather with IoT

Smart farming

In addition to new technologies, the acquisition gives Deere a 60-person team specializing in precision agriculture in Sunnyvale, California to work on new developments.

Other companies targeting smart farming are thinking along similar high-tech lines: Monsanto (which recently scrapped plans to sell its Precision Planting unit to Deere) struck a deal with biotech company ToolGen to develop farm products in mid-August, while DuPont bought agriculture analytics firm Granular around the same time.

The post Deere & Company harvests Blue River Technology in smart farming drive appeared first on Internet of Business.

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John Deere bought an AI company to optimize crop spraying

Want to know how pervasive AI is becoming in seemingly all facets of daily life? Just ask Deere & Company. The John Deere brand owner just acquired Blue River Technology, which uses machine learning and computer vision to target herbicide spray…
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John Deere opens SF office to make its tractors smarter

John Deere’s office in San Francisco will eventually feature a simulator.

Farm equipment company John Deere is no stranger to the internet of things. It was connecting sensors and actuators on the farm twenty years ago. The next big thing in farming is what connected devices enable: precision agriculture. Precision Agriculture combines connected with devices with machine learning to have them make faster and more precise decisions, possibly without a farmer’s input.

To make precision ag the new reality, John Deere needs Silicon Valley skills. That’s why last week it opened an office in the SoMA area of San Francisco to connect with local talent.

Alex Purdy, head of John Deere Labs in San Francisco, says the hope is to find startups (or individuals) solving robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence problems that may be of use in agriculture.

“We know the center of gravity for that talent pool is here and we want to organically build that,” he says.

Purdy says he has a list of 50 problems that he thinks machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence can help solve ranked by how much impact they could have on farmers. For example, he’s looking for a way to deliver nutrients to plants at the right place and at the right time. Other efforts involve making better algorithms that can take advantage of the increasing number of sensors John Deere wants to add to its machinery.

The secondary goal of the office is to connect more deeply with Bay Area companies that already work with John Deere or its growers. For example, John Deere has a relationship with companies such as drone and satellite imagery company Mavericks; software providers FBN, FarmLogs and AgDNA and roughly 70 others.

John Deere is one of a long line of companies building Bay Area offices in hopes of attracting technical talent. Industrial heavyweights from GE to Ford have built up presences in Silicon Valley and San Francisco in the last decade as they realize the import of getting more technically savvy.

However, San Franciscans might find themselves surprised by how reliant farmers already are on tech and John Deere’s efforts to bring them to that point.

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