MOLINE, Illinois: Self-steering tractors are nothing new to Minnesota farmer Doug Nimz, who, four years ago, first used a new type of John Deere tractor on his 2,000-acre corn and soybean farm that could not only steer itself, but also did not need a farmer in the vehicle to operate it.
The 44,000-pound machine was John Deere's first fully autonomous tractor, and Nimz was one of the few farmers in the world to test it, allowing John Deere's engineers to make continuous changes and improvements over the last few years.
On January 3, the rest of the world witnessed the launch of the autonomous tractor as the centerpiece of the company's CES 2022 press conference.
"It takes a while to get comfortable because, first of all, you are kind of amazed just watching it," said Nimz, who described himself as very interested, but also a little suspicious of autonomous technology before using John Deere's tractor on his farm.
The rise of automation, from car factories to Amazon Go convenience stores, has caused fears that robots will eventually take over millions of jobs. But in farm country, where workers are in short supply and younger people are moving to cities, autonomy could be the only way to ensure enough food is grown to feed the world.
Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer for Deere and Co., said the tractor is a "way to get the job done on time, every time, and do it at a high level of quality. It is 20 years in the making," as quoted by CNET.
John Deere is not the first agriculture equipment maker to develop an autonomous tractor. But as the world's second leading manufacturer of agricultural equipment, it is one of the most notable. Its signature green tractors are commonly used in farm country, and Deere even sells apparel and toy tractors.
Rather than creating a brand-new tractor, the company developed equipment that can be added to its popular 8R 410 tractors, that will allow full autonomy. Two boxes, one on the front and the other on the back, contain 12 cameras and an Nvidia GPU, enabling farmers to control their tractor with a smartphone.
John Deere's tractors have been able to steer themselves for two decades, providing someone still sits behind the wheel, thus making the move to a fully autonomous tractor less of a new feature.
John Deere will initially rent out tractors with the autonomous equipment already added, but has not determined the price for adding the autonomous equipment.
Hindman said the price would be "significant," as much as 10 percent of total equipment cost, or as high as $50,000, which could be too high for some farmers, many of whom are already irritated by John Deere's refusal to let them repair their own expensive tractors.
Although John Deere currently does not charge service fees for its GPS capabilities or other features inside its tractors, it is still deciding whether it will do so for its autonomy technology. It has also not yet determined how it will handle upgrades and other logistics. Farmers hold onto their tractors for decades, but the technology used to make tractors autonomous will become out of date more often.
"We have to come up with the right business model that allows growers to take advantage of increasing levels of technology, increasing improvements in the ability of the cameras and the computer and the perception system, without having to change the tractor out every time they want to do that," Hindman said.