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A Skunk Works – with tractors – inside John Deere’s IoT-innovation unit

A Skunk Works – with tractors – inside John Deere’s IoT-innovation unit

Outfitting the cabs of their vehicles with what used to be office gear makes farmers more effective

John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group is at the forefront of an IoT-based revolution in agriculture and the cutting edge of the firm’s aggressive development of technology to turn farming from an art into a science – a remarkable transformation for a company founded 180 years ago selling a self-scouring plow.

The ISG, as Deere employees generally refer to it, has been around for about 15 years, and one of its first projects was to wire the company’s machines with cellular modems. According to John Deere director of technology John Teeple, the idea was what he called an “interior-focused value proposition” – the plan would have been to collect metrics from those modems in-house to study usage patterns.

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Location, location, location

It was a gamble, he says, as there simply wasn’t a plan at the outset to monetize what would become the company’s IoT division. But tracking tractors quickly blossomed into what’s now the main underpinning of a broad ecosystem of features – Deere’s hyper-accurate GNSS location-tracking system.

Locational tech is fundamental to the ISG, underlying much of what the group does – individual nozzle controls for sprayer systems and pesticide applicators, ultra-precise seed placement for planting and so on are all based largely on the ISG’s high-accuracy GNSS framework.

Those systems are letting the company push toward its goal of making farming into “a science, not an art,” as more than one Deere employee put it. And Teeple said that the pace of change has accelerated of late.

“We’re seeing in the last five years, 10 years or so, a significant transition to a lot more math- and science-based decision-making in agriculture,” he said. “And the tools and the technologies to support that are finally getting to a place where that’s easier.”

Going mobile

Many of Deere’s applications started life on the desktop, but as mobile has developed, the opportunity has become obvious. The company began creating mobile versions of most of its products three years ago, according to Teeple.

“Being able to have the same experience in the cab as you would in the farm office or in the car has really improved ease-of-use and adoption.”

The ease-of-use angle is one that Teeple and others working with the ISG refer to more than once – it’s not solely a matter of efficiency. Farming is simply less physically and mentally stressful when performed with modern gadgetry. Instead of driving a combine with your neck craned around to keep in formation with a grain bin, an automated system ensures that the bin stays tucked into a precisely defined position behind you, for example.

They’re probably midway through the transition, Teeple said.

“The new generation of growers are much more tech-savvy. It wasn’t that uncommon, not long ago, to not be able to find a smartphone or a tablet in a cab, and now it’s almost pervasive.”

Challenges

Deere still faces its share of headaches as it rumbles deeper into the 21st century. Transitioning from an iron-and-machinery industrial company to one that heavily integrates computing technology into its products isn’t an easy process, and requires a lot of change management.

Jon Deere thinks it’s ahead of the game, “particularly given the investment we’ve made in connecting all of our large ag machines,” said Teeple.

With interoperability a primary concern for most of the IoT field, Deere gets around this by exercising tight control over every part of the stack. Teeple said the company is relatively comfortable that it has a technological lead over the competition in most of the areas where it’s vertically integrated and proprietary.

But this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. “Where we know that there are others in the industry that we know are better equipped,” Teeple said. “That’s where we look to understand how we can establish international standards.”

The company is active in all international standards bodies in its space, and Teeple boasted that Deere is an active leader in data-sharing agreements in the ag industry.

“[We’re] always looking to improve interoperability, but when it comes to what we can control, we certainly focus on our vertical integration and … maximizing our sources of competitive advantage,” he said.

What’s next?

The next step is pushing computing from the cloud to the edge – Deere wants the analytics engine working locally on the farmer’s tractor, rather than off in the cloud, adjusting based on local inputs on the fly - “leveraging all that back-office analytics and the prescription you’re executing, but modifying it in real time based on conditions in the field,” in Teeple’s words.

That’s where John Deere sets itself apart, he said. “We touch the soil, we touch the seed, we touch the plant with our technology solutions, and that’s where we have kind of this unique competitive advantage in the execution in the field of the job.”

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