John Deere doubles down on Silicon Valley and robots

there are several of them to talk about bringing Silicon Valley-style innovation to the heart of America. But when the heart needs technology, it’s always Silicon Valley.

Thusday, John deere announced that he would acquire Bear Flag Robotic, a Silicon Valley startup that makes fully autonomous tractors for farms, for $ 250 million.

Bear Flag modernizes ordinary tractors with the sensors, control systems, computers and communication systems needed to operate autonomously. The company’s technology allows a single farmer to remotely supervise a fleet of robotic tractors plowing a field independently.

“John Deere, which is putting its mark on this kind of fully autonomous technology, means it’s really coming,” says Georges office, 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 many different agricultural fields.

Some tractors are already able to follow GPS-guided paths autonomously, but Bear Flag’s technology completely removes a person from the tractor cab. The company borrowed innovations developed and commoditized by the self-driving car industry. It uses lidar and computer vision not only to navigate, but also to analyze the ground behind a tractor.

“We use AI to analyze input from sensors that predict failure and can see beyond what a human can see,” says Aubrey Donnellan, co-founder and COO of Bear Flag Robotics.

The acquisition is the latest sign that John Deere, founded in 1837, is seeing automation, robotic, and artificial intelligence as crucial ingredients for the future of agriculture. The supplier paid 305 million dollars to acquire Blue River Technology, another Silicon Valley company that made intelligent weed killer robots, in September 2017.

“For technologists interested in the development of autonomous vehicles and robotics, this is an area that will develop fairly quickly,” says Daniel Leibfried, director of range and smart solutions at John Deere.

Machines have long been used in agriculture, but the industry is now seeing an increase in new automation applications 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 the growing demand for food and labor, and to mitigate the environmental damage that can result from more intensive agriculture.

On some farms, drones now independently analyze crops to estimate yields or spot signs of disease. A growing catalog of robots can perform more complex farm work in the field, including machines that can harvest, remove weeds, and milk livestock. Startups such as Iron buffalo and Bowery are developing greenhouses where food production is optimized using sensors, robotics and AI.

Some simple jobs are still beyond the reach of robots. Picking grapes or tomatoes, for example, can be a simple (and low-paying) job for humans, but it is extremely difficult for robots to master.

“Eventually, there will also be robots that will do this stuff,” Kantor says. “And they’ll have to be towed or integrated into the type of self-driving tractor that Bear Flag makes.”

Revenues from agricultural robots are expected to increase by 19% per year between 2018 and 2026 to reach $ 16.6 billion, according to Research Drive, an analyst firm.

Increased agricultural automation could potentially affect employment. Agriculture still accounts for about 2.6 million jobs in the United States, according to figures released by the US Department of Agriculture in October 2020.

Corn Ali Moghimi, an assistant professor at UC Davis who teaches “precision agriculture,” says robotics and AI are likely to be adopted more slowly in agriculture than in other industries due to the complexity and the cyclical nature of agriculture. But he believes automation is inevitable, not only because it can increase productivity, but also because it can help limit environmental damage by automatically detecting, for example, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers.

“Recent advances in AI are going to be a game changer,” Moghimi said in agriculture. “This is the path we have to take. “

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