John Deere to Acquire Autonomous Tractors Start-Up; “removes a person from the tractor cab entirely”

By B.N. Frank

Cybersecurity experts have warned about serious risks and vulnerabilities associated with “Smart Farms” and Internet of Things (IoT) connected agriculture.  Strangely enough, proponents still aren’t discouraged.

In fact, earlier this summer John Deere announced that the company supports 5G for farming despite cybersecurity as well as well-documented biological and environmental risks from the controversial technology which has already been banned in some cities and countries (see 1, 2, 3).  Nevertheless, the company is investing in autonomous tractors even though other autonomous vehicles are getting lousy reviews (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

From Wired:

John Deere Doubles Down on Silicon Valley and Robots

The farm-equipment giant is buying Bear Flag Robotics, which makes autonomous tractors, marking its second big tech buy in four years.

There’s a lot of talk about bringing Silicon Valley–style innovation to America’s heartland. But when the heartland needs tech, it still comes to Silicon Valley.

On Thursday, John Deere announced that it would acquire Bear Flag Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup that makes fully autonomous tractors for farms, for $250 million.

Bear Flag retrofits regular tractors with sensors, control systems, computers, and communications systems needed to operate autonomously. The company’s tech lets a lone farmer remotely oversee a fleet of robot tractors autonomously tilling a field.

“John Deere putting their stamp on this kind of fully autonomous technology means it’s really coming,” says George Kantor, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in the use of robots in agriculture. He adds that autonomous tractors are especially important because the machines are used in so many different areas of farming.

Some tractors are already capable of following GPS-guided paths autonomously, but Bear Flag’s tech removes a person from the tractor cab entirely. The company has borrowed innovations developed and commoditized through the self-driving car industry. It uses lidar and computer vision not only to navigate but also to analyze the soil behind a tractor.

“John Deere putting their stamp on this kind of fully autonomous technology means it’s really coming.”

George Kantor, roboticist, Carnegie Mellon University

“We use AI to analyze sensor input that predicts failure and can see beyond what a human can see,” says Aubrey Donnellan, cofounder and COO of Bear Flag Robotics.

The acquisition is the latest sign that John Deere, founded in 1837, sees automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence as crucial ingredients for the future of farming. The equipment manufacturer paid $305 million to acquire Blue River Technology, another Silicon Valley company that made intelligent weed-killing robots, in September 2017.

“For technologists interested in autonomous vehicle development and robotics, this is a field that is going to develop quite rapidly,” says Daniel Leibfried, director of autonomy and intelligent solutions at John Deere.

Machines have long been used in agriculture, but the industry is now experiencing a surge in new applications of automation, as advances in AI and robotics allow processes to be automated in new ways. Many experts predict that more automation will be needed to meet rising demand for food and labor shortages, and to mitigate environmental damage that can come with more intensive farming.

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Activist Post reports regularly about unsafe technology.  For more information, visit our archives.

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