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“A farmer’s active farming life spans approximately 40 years and, during this period, he has to make something like 140 very important agricultural decisions in every seasonal year. This means he has 40 opportunities to improve his farm-tech”.
The above is the philosophy of Nate Heinrich, John Deere’s Manager: Precision Agriculture, Product Marketing and New Products. He is stationed in Urbandale, Iowa, in the USA, and is attached to John Deere’s new Intelligent Solutions Group-(ISG)-office.
“Over the past 180 years these decisions had to be based on tradition, initiative, consultation with trusted entities like the people who work on the farm, friends and neighbours or consultants,” says Nate. “This year John Deere is a ripe 183 years old and we still focus continually on assisting the farmer with simple solutions for intricate problems. For that reason it is important for the farmer to digitalise the information in his filing cabinet and use it as a lever to assist him to make better and niftier decisions year after year.”
In John Deere’s new era of FarmForward 2,0 these decisions are virtually taken out of the farmer’s hands with the aid of artificial intelligence, automation and inter-connectivity, giving the farmer valuable extra time to reflect on more important issues such as market prices and future strategies. The result of all this was a dramatic increase in the demand for auto-tech from John Deere clients over the past three years.
The key to this technology is the industry which manufactures sensors that can, for instance, recognise pests and plant diseases. A multitude of censors can be crafted to identify any problem in a field. However, on their own the censors have little value. This is where John Deere’s advanced technology combines the censors with interpreting equipment. This means that artificial intelligence, robot technology and censors have to combine to have any value for the farmer. Where the John Deere implements move over a field, they scan, document and record. Worldwide this aggregates to trillions of observations.
Tavonga Siyavora, John Deere’s program manager, says the advances of precision agriculture are built in layers. “Every innovation is an improvement on the previous model and adapted to keep pace with the demands and future challenges set by our client, the modern farmer. With the aid of artificial intelligence and the collection and analysis of modern day data, the capacity of John Deere’s machinery and equipment is so specialised that they, in fact, improve themselves,” says Tavonga.
Distinguish between weeds and crops
An example is the John Deere concept Exact Apply™. In 2017 John Deere bought a California company, Blue River Technologies, an undertaking specialising in computer monitoring and mechanical science, with the purpose of serious investment in agricultural artificial intelligence. They then devised a system which can identify weeds among the crops to spray weed killer judiciously. Artificial intelligence, sensors and precision spray technology were combined to make this mind-boggling breakthrough possible. Test runs with the system indicated that a farmer may save up to 90% of his expenditure on chemicals.
John Deere’s self-propelled sprayers are fitted with more than 400 sensors which collect agronomical and machine data at an amazing speed. In peak times up to 8 MB data per second can be transmitted to the John Deere operational centre. This data supports the farmer in making critical decisions, provides him with an overview of his lands, and also provides the dealer with information regarding preventive maintenance before a machine breaks down.
“This ecosystem will only get bigger and better. The future truly lies in 5G technology to transmit and store all this data in the cloud,” says Nate.
John Deere wants to change the present farming model. The farmer will not any longer refer to lands, hectares, areas or plant rows, or even to square metres. He will have to hone his management to the extent that he will focus on the single plant. “We are moving in that direction with the Exact Apply™ technology and Exact Emerge™ (the precision plant technology utilised by the planters). We are rolling down to do all the data processing over the whole production season at a single plant level. That is what the future demands from us,” says Nate.
“There is still a huge challenge. The farmer has to continue maintaining his scale of farming, but now has to focus on plant level; that is where our technology comes in. On a thousand ha you look at 4 million plants, and on a wheat field it runs to 50 000 million. The John Deere solution is to optimise the farming practices of its farmers through all this to maintain the same productivity.
“In future every seed kernel will have its own address. We already work with x and y coordinates at present, which tells us exactly where each seed kernel has been planted in the land, but in future we will also have a z-coordinate, which will indicate its depth under the soil surface.”
A clever drone
The Exact Apply™ concept also performs excellent on drones. John Deere built a prototype drone which was exhibited during the recent ATT congress and expo in Pretoria.
This drone is completely autonomous. It leaves its ‘nest’ by itself to scan the lands for a specific weed. The information is then documented and transmitted to the cloud. The drone then returns to the nest where a big tank with a chemical mixture is waiting to fill its 10,6 litre tank, and, if necessary, change the battery. The spray path of the crewless aircraft is then optimised and it can stay in the air for 30 minutes. Its routes and spray points can then be loaded on the plant maps. At a later stage various chemicals can be kept under the nest for different pests and plagues to enable the drone to apply sprays accordingly.
Data problems do not frighten John Deere
“Our duty is to ensure that our implements do their work under all conditions,” says Nate. “If a machine loses its data connection, we have to ensure that it can continue with its task without interruption. The on-board technology and data storing capability can enable a machine to complete its mission easily. Secondly, John Deere is a big organisation and we regard data privacy and security very seriously. We make use of the best international service providers such as Amazon Web Services to store the farmers’ data.”
Machines getting even smarter
John Deere’s Machine Sinc enables the implements on the same land to interact so that the tractors know what has to be planted where and which guidelines had been followed. “With even more advanced communication we will reach the point where the planter will make the sprayer smarter, which will make the combine smarter, which will then make the soil tillers smarter,” says Tavonga.
Feel free to contact your nearest John Deere dealer for more information regarding the data revolution and its linked products.