John Deere ploughs furrow as Industrial Internet pioneer
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John Deere ploughs furrow as Industrial Internet pioneer

John Deere may seem an unlikely pioneer of the fourth industrial revolution, but the company is using IoT, telematics and satellite technologies to drive precision farming.

To many people, farming and technology may not seem natural bedfellows, but In a world where the global population could soon hit ten billion people, agriculture must become more efficient than it is today. Simply put, we will need to produce more food using less land.

Agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere spotted the trends faster than others, and today is utilising GPS, telematics, Big Data and IoT connectivity to drive more efficient, intelligent machines.

At Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, Internet of Business caught up with Dr Thomas Engel, manager of technology innovation strategy at John Deere, to discuss the Industrial Internet, smart machines and the company’s push for precision farming.

Digital transformation started years ago

Engel expresses pride at John Deere being labelled the “poster boy” of digital transformation by strategy firm McKinsey, but is eager to stress that the 180-year-old company’s journey started long before the term become a marketing buzzword.

“For us, [digital transformation] started 20 years ago when we acquired Navcom, for its technology in GPS-based positioning and localisation in the field. [We realized] it would be so important in the future to know exactly where the machine is, but also where the single crop is, so that we can precisely apply seed, fertilizer and so on, and tell the farmer what he needs to do.”

This acquisition enabled the firm to introduce GPS-steered tractors, with Navcom’s StarFire Network global satellite-based augmentation system now enabling its machines to achieve fuel savings, optimized ploughing and more efficient use of fertilizer.

Read more: John Deere turns to IoT to make smart farming a reality

Connectivity and data collection the next steps

This focus on GPS was just the start for John Deere, according to Engel. Next came a greater emphasis on machine connectivity.

John Deere – which also brought the AutoTrac GPS-based automated guidance system to market back in 2001 –  saw an opportunity to simplify machine data management, moving from flash drives to wireless transfer.

“We said OK, we need to connect our machines wirelessly to the cloud, so we started that in 2012. Since then, a lot of large machinery has been fitted with a modular telematics gateway, and we added a data logger, which collects data, because not everywhere in the field do you have cellular coverage.”

Once back at base and connected to Wi-Fi, the farmer can use the data logger to share data with approved suppliers, with the John Deere Operations Center acting as a hub to connect the farmer’s machines, operators and fields.

Engel says that it is this platform, and connectivity more broadly, that is enabling John Deere to deliver these smarter machines.

“Our core competence is machine optimisation – making machines smarter, more effective and productive.  

“With things like AutoTrac, and using sensors to automatically adjust the combine harvester, we’re making the single machine more intelligent and taking some burden off the machine driver.”

Read more: Farmers lead with IIoT – but can they be more precise?

IoT enabling “better agronomic decisions”

John Deere executives talk of this added intelligence enabling farmers to “make better agronomic decisions”, and with connectivity increasingly commonplace on John Deere equipment, there are now countless examples of IoT in action.

Company officials told IoB that its equipment now includes ‘feeler’ technology, with wheel sensors advising the farmer what the middle of the road looks like (achieving a 10 percent productivity gain), while sensors on each row of the planters revealing where seed is being placed.

This is where AutoTrac and sensors work in harmony – with guidance system technology guiding the vehicle and sensor-equipped seed sprayers ‘feeling’ their way down the path, and planting where appropriate. All of this information can be monitored in real-time in the cab, in the cloud or via mobile apps, such as John Deere’s Seedstar iPad app.

This efficiency extends beyond crops, to the vehicles too. Through a combination of GPS, telematics and its Starfire Network and JDLink software, John Deere is also looking to drive vehicle accuracy down to two inches, and minimising machines sitting idly waiting for trailers or other equipment.

Engel explains how machine changes can be made over-the-air, such as optimising the cut of a machine, and says some equipment is gathering more data than others. John Deere’s ExactEmerge Planter, for example, has three sensors on each of its 24 rows.

“We see ourselves as an enabler, collecting data in the field,” explains Engel, adding that these data ‘prescriptions’ (a set rate for seed planting, for example) can be shared by farmers with third parties for a limited or indefinite period of time.

Through Operations Center, farmers are able to share multiple data sources, from drone maps to seed analysis, with third-party suppliers, and push back any tweaks to the machine wirelessly. On his panel at MWC, Engel stressed that the “farmer owns the data”, although naturally they are more willing to share certain data types than others.

Read more: IoT in agriculture – sowing seeds of innovation

Heading into factories

John Deere is now branching out of IoT for the field, and – like many other industrial firms – into its own factories.

As reported previously by IoB, the firm is using Telit’s DeviceWISE IIoT platform in its factory operations to collect and analyse real-time assembly information, in order to improve line efficiency and reduce downtime in the supply chain. The firm has also worked with IBM’s Watson cognitive computing platform in a factory in Germany.

“At the moment, IoT is at the farm level, but at the factory level, it’s something different, as IoT/Industrie 4.0 becomes more important,” said Engel.

“We had project in a Mannheim factory with IBM and we used Watson to analyze production data and look for improvements. We are looking into that, but I heard from colleagues that it was a good exercise and we learned a lot. And if you have success stories, then it is easier to quickly adopt it.”

Electrification and autonomous car learnings

Autonomous cars were a huge hit at MWC, and yet it’s the more rustic-sounding John Deere that has the real-life experience. The firm has had autonomous machines for years, with ‘steering assistance’ tractors where the driver is still present to monitor what’s going on. More recently, it has experimented with autonomous lawn mowers.

In some situations, the company has had tractors driving in fields, without drivers, too, he says. “We did it in fenced fields where there was no risk to an animal or person. We don’t offer that because you still have the issue of bringing the machine to the field.”

Nonetheless, he sees the benefit of dialogue between players in the agritech and automotive industries. We have constant conversation with automotive companies, because we’re not competing. We can learn a lot from each other.”

“When comes autonomous vehicles, what we do in field, you can’t easily copy, because we have different requirements on roads and in the field,” he continued, adding the firm has regular talks with BMW, among other manufacturers.

Engel believes autonomous vehicles are imminent as sensor cost and availability comes down, but doesn’t necessarily see the value in agriculture.

John Deere is excited about other areas, though. Engel says that electrification (in the form of battery-operated tractors) is on the roadmap going forward, as are artificial intelligence, open APIs and big data analytics – an area in which the firm has already become proficient in its bid to make machines “even more productive.”

Read more: Farming industry ‘already embracing IoT’

Industrial Internet and precision farming

For all of this, Engel admits more can be done in this age of the Industrial Internet.  “The connectivity is there, but we’re still in the early days of getting all value out of all that data.

“There’s a lot to come there. There is lot of room for added services and in the future it’s definitely going to move to a service-orientated approach.”

IoT bleeds into precision farming, an area that will essential to humanity going forward. Beecham Research estimates IoT could be key to the 70 percent increase in food production needed to feed a global population that could reach 10 billion within 35 years.

“We know we need to double production by 2050, and for that we need to become more precise,” says Engel.

Precise, efficient and digital – maybe poster boy John Deere isn’t such a surprising technology pioneer after all.