Acceleration from automated to autonomous tractors


Peter Wanckel, John Deere Limited managing director (Australia/New Zealand) cuts the cake celebrating 100 years of tractor manufacturing at the 2018 Henty Machinery Field Days.

There won’t be any robotic tractors in the iconic green and yellow livery any time soon but John Deere has flagged an accelerated journey from automation to autonomy.

John Deere Limited managing director (Australia/New Zealand) Peter Wanckel was a keynote speaker at the Henty Machinery Field Days on September 20 for the brand’s celebration of 100 years of tractor manufacture.

Mr Wanckel said the industry was on the cusp of exciting technological times.

“The increased use of (telemetry) technology will gain momentum with farmers able to control and monitor machinery from a mobile device,’’ he said.

“We do see an accelerating move to more automation which will ultimately lead to full autonomy.

“The focus is a stepped process to get to that full autonomy – a lot of our focus is on developing those automated solutions to give us the confidence and enable future autonomy.’’

Mr Wanckel pointed to the examples of Machine Sync, Combine Advisor™, AutoTrac™ 2, the John Deere Operations Centre and MyOperations™ mobile app giving operators control from a mobile device.

“In 100 years time, productivity will be delivered through easier to operate, more precise and smaller machines,’’ he said.

“We expect they will be small, independent and autonomous – they will look nothing like the large tractors of today.’’

Australia’s mature farm machinery market represents just two per cent of John Deere’s total revenue.

But, Australian farmers are recognised around the world as being the most innovative, early adopters of technology and at the forefront of identifying and developing new farming practices.

Mr Wanckel said John Deere executives respected the views and acknowledged the innovative approach of Australian farmers, given the difficult environmental conditions and lack of farm subsidies they operate under.

“They (John Deere) use the Australian market to test solutions and finesse them before a global launch,’’ he said.

“A lot of products now available on a global basis like Harvest Identification Cotton Pro and Mobile Weather were identified and developed here.

“At John Deere, we remain focused on listening to our customers, identifying their needs and delivering solutions to meet their requirements.’’

With global population growth projected to hit 10 billion by 2050, increases in farm productivity are required.

“For us to do that, we will need to innovate and look at new ways of doing things for a stepped change in productivity to meet the food production requirements,’’ Mr Wanckel said.

“Innovation is not something that is new to the agricultural industry.

“The world of digitisation and artificial intelligence is gaining momentum and will enable us to achieve some of those productivity improvements in the future.’’

Mr Wanckel said the history of innovation started at John Deere in 1837 with a different shaped plough for the prairie soils of the USA.

He said the first self-propelled combine harvester, model 55, was introduced by the company in 1947.

The Australian manufactured tractor, the Chamberlain, was acquired by John Deere in 1949.

“A big change in 1960 was the new generation of power, or the introduction of four and six cylinder tractors to provide the extra horsepower.

“That was the start of the journey towards bigger, stronger and more powerful machines to drive productivity.

“The most recent transformation event in 2009 was the introduction of the round module cotton picker which has had a large impact on changing practices in the cotton industry.’’

Mr Wanckel said future productivity improvements would be driven by precision agriculture.

“This is a significant aspect of our corporate strategy and part of our research and development expenditure has been allocated to developing the technology-driven solutions,’’ he said.

“Precision agriculture is a combination of the equipment and the services of trusted advisors to deliver an overall solution to the whole farming production cycle.

“We have been on the precision ag journey for 22 years when we introduced (GreenStar™) integrated yield mapping.

“In the early 2000s we introduced (AutoTrac™) for driving accuracy, precision and repeatability – it took a long time to gain traction with customers but most large acreage equipment are sold with some form of guidance system already incorporated in the base.

“From 2006-2011, other precision farming tools were introduced like mapping, sectional control, variable rate and precision irrigation.

“Since 2012, developments around the connection and co-ordination of information enabled by telemetry has gained momentum.

“This is evolving rapidly and requiring a lot of change in our business.

“We have been employing technology solution developers which is quite different from the traditional engineering roles.’’

Mr Wanckel said dealers were required to change in order to deliver and support the new technology and solutions.

He said a maintenance tool called Connected Support™ – Expert Alerts was introduced last year.

“Through the use of predictive analytics based on capturing significant volumes of historical data, we now have the ability to predict with a high level of accuracy the likelihood of a potential fault in the machine.

“It identifies a potential fault occurring and sends a message to the customer and dealer, allowing the issue to be addressed in a planned downtime period.

“This is opposed to the machine failing in the field and having unplanned downtime.’’