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.

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