Reading time
1 min read
Sequence of images showing tractors working on fields

One of the world’s largest makers of farm equipment is doubling down on self-driving tractors.

What’s new: John Deere agreed to pay $250 million for Bear Flag Robotics, a California startup that upgrades conventional tractors for full autonomy.
How it works: Deere has offered GPS-enabled tractor guidance systems that aid a human driver for nearly two decades. Bear Flag has adapted self-driving technology developed by the automotive industry to help tractors roam agricultural fields safely without a driver.

  • Tractors equipped with Bear Flag tech navigate using a combination of GPS tracking and sensor data. Lidar, radar, and cameras enable the vehicles to see their surroundings. Actuator systems control steering, braking, and a variety of towed implements.
  • The system is adapted for farm driving. For instance, the vision algorithm distinguishes between fallen branches that can be driven over and trees that should be avoided.
  • The sensors also gather data on the quality of the soil tilled in the tractor’s wake. The information can help growers fine-tune their use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, resulting in reductions of up to 20 percent, the company said.

The system learns the boundaries of a farmer’s property during an initial drive-through. It also identifies roads, waterways, and other obstacles. It can upload the resulting map to a fleet of tractors for remote control and monitoring.
Behind the news: Deere has been pursuing AI capabilities for several years. In 2017, it acquired Blue River Technology, a California-based startup that makes weed-killing robots. The following year, it launched a program to partner with promising startups including some that use deep learning.

Why it matters: In addition to helping the farmers deal with a long-running labor shortage, AI-driven equipment could help increase their productivity and limit environmental impacts such as pesticide runoff.

We’re thinking: Self-driving cars aren’t yet commonly used on public roads, but the technology appears to be good enough for commercial use in constrained environments like farms.


Subscribe to The Batch

Stay updated with weekly AI News and Insights delivered to your inbox