25 May 2018

The internet of farm machinery is taking over the farm

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What John Deere, the vast US maker of farming and construction equipment, means by "Where’s my tractor" is: "Where is it to within 2.5cm?" 

This was one of the gems in a conversation I had at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona in February with John Stone, an SVP at the company. 

But there was more in this conversation about where the internet of things (IoT) is really going. It’s all about precision agriculture, and that means not only getting your self-driving machine to cover every inch of the field, right up to every wiggly boundary, but to place seeds just where they’re needed, just at the right depth with the right soil contact, and not twice in the same spot. 

Wiggly boundaries – my term, not Stone’s – are not a problem in the wide open plains of the Mid-West (look out of your airliner window next time you’re flying over) but they are in Europe. Take a walk just about now to the bluebell woods of Kent, in south-east England, and you’ll see what I mean. You can miss a lot of field at the edges, even when you are an experienced tractor driver. 

Spot the weeds 

And what else does Deere’s equipment do? It makes sure you never spray the crops twice – especially if spraying isn’t needed. The traditional method has been to cover everything with weedkiller, just to make sure you zap all the weeds. That’s wasteful, said Stone. "We can see the plants and we can see the weeds."  

The technology comes from Blue River Technology, an artificial intelligence (AI)company based in Sunnyvale, at the heart of Silicon Valley, that John Deere bought last year for $300 million. Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River, explained the logic behind the deal last September: "Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level," he said. "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."

And that’s what’s happening today, Stone told me in Barcelona this year. "In the last few months, with AI, we’ve trained the system to identify weeds and plants more precisely than a trained agronomist can. It means we don’t get herbicides on plants that are food." 

It means the farmer is managing each field down to the level of the individual plant. Or weed.  

And it’s not just in planting the seeds and dealing with the weeds. Several months later, when you are harvesting the crops, you know the truck that follows the harvester, just to one side and just behind, catching the grain that’s sprayed out? That requires careful driving to get all of the grain. A lot falls, wasted, back to the ground. 

The IoT alternative, thanks to John Deere’s technology, is a self-driving harvester and a self-driving truck: they stay together automatically, just in the right place. "With GPS guidance you get a payback in one season," said Stone. The technology that allows the farmer to seed every wiggly edge of every field also delivers a payback in one season, he adds. 

Big farm data 

The whole system is really an agricultural big data system, an edge computer trundling through the fields, with a choice of attached planting attachments, weeding attachments and cutting attachments, complete with Bluetooth and Wifi, gathering data on what seeds were planted and what’s harvested. 

But out in the countryside, I hear you screaming, how do you beam this all up for processing? There’s precious little broadband coverage in the wide open spaces of Utah or Ukraine. Or Kent, if you’re honest. 

"We have telecoms partners that can install towers for large farms," Stone told me. John Deere is working with AT&T for the telecoms, AWS for the cloud, as well as Nvidia and Intel for the edge computing, he added. "If there’s no coverage, you store and forward." 

But this is clearly an opportunity for carriers: 4G – even private LTE – in and around the farm. And lots of opportunity for fibre providers to deliver backhaul networks to those 4G towers and fibre direct to the farm office. 

Bandwidth and speed 

John Deere has already delivered over 100,000 large machines with 3G and 4G for wireless data, and Stone is looking forward to 5G. He told me: "The bandwidth and speed promises of 5G will be very important. It means we can do more." 

Look what the regulators and wireless carriers are talking about: making spectrum available down in the 600-700MHz range. As any radio engineer will tell you, with a nod to work done by Claude Shannon at Bell Labs in the 1940s, the available bandwidth won’t let you carry very much information. 

But the signals carry a long way – think of those UHF television stations that were formerly on that bit of spectrum, delivering colour pictures across whole counties. Perfect for agricultural IoT for Utah, Ukraine and even Kent. 

Sounds expensive. "Yes, but farmers buy things only where they can see benefits quickly," he said. Already Deere’s internet of weeds cuts herbicide use to 10% – that’s to 10%, not by 10% – of what it was. And the farmer saves on seeds and fuel as well as chemicals. "It’s precision agriculture. You save costs, and you grow your yield," he smiled. 

 

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