John Deere: How information-enabled farming will feed the world
Image: © Deere & Company
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John Deere: How information-enabled farming will feed the world

Jim Mortleman – March 2017
Agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere believes digital technology — from self-driving tractors to soil-monitoring sensors — can dramatically boost global farming output.

As the world’s population rises from 7 to 9 billion over the next three decades, pressure will grow on the global farming industry to sustainably produce considerably more food from the finite base of fertile agricultural land. “The available land mass isn’t going to increase, and nutrients are limited, so we need to address the challenge in a different way,” says Georg Larscheid, integrated solutions implementation manager at agricultural machinery giant John Deere. And the large-scale application of technology is the only real solution, he says.

Farming has, to a large extent, kept pace with population growth thanks to the enormous efficiencies gained through mechanization, with ever more powerful farm machinery helping to boost both efficiency and crop yields. “But the industry is only farming land to around 50% of its capacity and after 100 years the scope of equipment such as combine harvesters and tractors is reaching its evolutionary limit,” he says.

The next big leap forward in efficiency and productivity will come from information-enabled agriculture powered by smart connected technology. “There is going to be a lot more digital technology — from IoT sensors, connectivity, cloud-based analytics, autonomous vehicles and other services — across farms and farming machines,” says Larscheid.
Autonomous farm vehicles

Automated guidance, steering and tracking systems are already a feature of the company’s tractors and other agricultural equipment, helping farmers to implement the kind of ‘precision farming’ that is regarded as the best way of optimizing yields. “Today only half the nutrients in fertiliser actually reach the plant, while just 10% of pesticides sprayed make any contact with infested crops,” he says.

An important next step would be a move to self-driving tractors, says Larscheid who argues that agricultural vehicle makers are “already some years ahead of the car industry when it comes to autonomous vehicles.” Such big, heavy machines are often hard to manoeuvre manually and automatic steering allows them to cover a field in the most efficient manner and turn around in particularly tight areas. But IoT promises even greater benefits and John Deere has again been at the forefront of innovating with the new technology.

Satellite-connected guidance systems, which are already a feature in most John Deere vehicles, provide the company with a foundation for adding IoT capabilities, says Larscheid. “We’re now able to access sensors on the machines wirelessly and pull data into a cloud for analysis and decision-making,” he says. “From planning to planting to harvesting, farmers have to take account of myriad factors at every stage of production. Today, they primarily make those decisions based on knowledge and experience rather than data. So we’re trying to pull all the data together, from different machines in different locations, then get service partners involved who can analyze the data and generate insights that will allow farmers to make better, more effective decisions,” he says.

The company has already developed a web-based operations platform that (with customers’ consent) connects to their machines to enable preventative maintenance. Its aim is to optimize individual machine performance and minimize downtime. For example, dispatching app-equipped operators to precisely where they’re needed, when they’re needed. John Deere is also helping farmers to deploy sensors directly in their fields to provide up-to-the-minute crop and soil data. It means customers can get a holistic view of their operations on desktop and mobile devices — including the ability to see where all their machines are located and the treatments that have been applied to different fields.

That platform has been designed to be open — with APIs allowing partners to access aggregated data and provide insight as a service to farmers. “That is all based on a solid consent-management infrastructure to ensure we maintain the trust and confidence of customers,” says Larscheid.
Open ecosystem

Such innovation is already paying off for early adopters. If, say, a crop sprayer fails, a local dealer is able to remotely diagnose the problem, says Larscheid, and dispatch a technician pre-armed with the information and parts necessary to fix the machine. “What would typically have meant two or more hours of downtime can be cut to just 40 minutes,” he says.

As well as optimizing machine operations and the execution of jobs through connected technicians, the platform can also be used to optimize the delivery of nutrients or pesticide, treating only those areas of a field that need them and applying them in precisely the right quantities. “What we are looking at is to drive farming to new levels of efficiency,” says Larscheid.

However, to deliver the required levels of improvement there needs to far more co-operation among competing suppliers, especially when it comes to cloud interoperability (John Deere is an active supporter of the OpenStack cloud standard).  “We’ve made progress with some manufacturers,” says Larscheid. “But this is only going to work if farmers can aggregate and analyze all of their data.”

• Georg Larscheid was speaking at IoT Tech Expo in London
First published March 2017
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