Can Autonomous Tractors Solve Farming Labor Problems? – Quartz

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Farmers will soon be able to operate a 30,000 lb John Deere tractor from an app.

At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, Deere announcement it will launch a fully autonomous version of its signature green and yellow 8R tractor for purchase this year. The tractor will move through fields plowing the soil, without needing to be seated in the vehicle.

The tractor will not be cheap. The company did not disclose a cost, but Deere’s 8R Series conventional tractors can approach $ 500,000. Deere said he was exploring subscription options, Wired reported.

This is a big step for Deere. In 1837, the same agricultural manufacturing company offered the steel plow. In recent years, the company has increasingly positioned itself as a technology company and since the mid-90s, Deere uses GPS data to determine crop yields. “If you visit a farm, you will see as much technology on the ground as in Silicon Valley”, noted Jahmy Hindson, CTO at Deere, at a CES press conference.

The autonomous tractor is equipped with 12 cameras that allow it to detect its surroundings and adjust its route. When the tractor detects a foreign object outside of its standard object classification, it will stop in its tracks. Unlike an autonomous vehicle on the road, there are fewer variables for a tractor on a farm, and it can run on its own all day. The machines have been trained on thousands of farm images over the past three years and will continue to improve as they collect more data, according to Deere.

Using robots to solve workforce problems

One of the biggest ongoing challenges for farmers is finding labor, and self-driving tractors could help.

Fewer people are starting careers in agriculture, Deanna Kovar, vice president of precision agricultural production systems at Deere, told the conference. The average American farmer has finished 55 years (pdf) and as rural populations decline in the Midwest, migrant workers are unable to tell the difference. At the same time, the work is not easy: farmers can work more than 12 hours a day. Automating parts of the farm could give workers more time while eliminating labor costs, according to the company.

But as the technology becomes more sophisticated, farmers will have less control over operations and become increasingly dependent on a single large company. Deere accounts for more than half of all farm machinery sales in the United States and more than a third of equipment revenue globally, reported Bloomberg. Farmers own the hardware, but the software is always controlled by the company. When machines break down, farmers need a Deere dealer to diagnose the problem. Some farmers say it can be more expensive than sending it to a local mechanic.

For Deere, parts and service are three to six times more profitable than original equipment sales, Bloomberg reported. If farmers had more control over parts and services, it could hurt Deere’s business.

States are increasingly seizing on this issue. The legislation on the right to compensation has been introduced in at least 25 states and a national bill has been introduced in Congress that would require manufacturers to provide owners and repair shops with access to software diagnostics, service manuals, parts and information necessary to repair machines.

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