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Deere & Co. intends to bring better connectivity to farmers with its new strategic agreement with SpaceX. The companies plan to provide rural areas with cutting-edge satellite communications (SATCOM) services. John Deere said it hopes this will allow farmers who have had connectivity challenges to more fully use its precision agriculture technologies.
Connectivity has long been an issue for farmers and robotics developers hoping to deploy systems in rural areas. At John Deere’s 2023 Tech Summit, we highlighted how the lack of high-speed connectivity has held back the successful deployment of agricultural robotics. This is a particular concern for the company, which has been rolling out its autonomous tractor in recent years.
John Deere’s 8R autonomous tractors can only operate when there is a high-speed, high-bandwidth connection. This is necessary for a farmer to remotely control the tractor’s operation using a cellphone or tablet.
Farms that lack high-speed connectivity cannot use the tractor, leaving some of John Deere’s most important markets in the dark. For instance, Brazil is a key agricultural market for John Deere but is also one of the countries with a low percentage of rural high-speed coverage.
“The value of connectivity to farmers is broader than any single task or action,” said Aaron Wetzel, vice president of production and precision ag production systems at John Deere, in a release. “Connectivity unlocks vast opportunities that were previously limited or unavailable.”
“For example, throughout the year, farmers must complete tasks within extremely short windows of time,” he added. “This requires executing incredibly precise production steps while coordinating between machines and managing machine performance. Each of these areas are enhanced through connectivity, making the entire operation more efficient, effective, and profitable.”
Technologies enable remote operations in rural areas
Moline, Ill.-based John Deere claimed that its partnership with SpaceX will enable its customers’ operations to be more productive, profitable, and sustainable.
The planned SATCOM system will connect both new and existing machines through satellite internet service and ruggedized satellite terminals, said the company. This will enable technologies including autonomy, real-time data sharing, remote diagnostics, enhanced self-repair systems, and machine-to-machine communication.
The SATCOM will use SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation. To activate the system, John Deere dealers will install a ruggedized Starlink terminal on compatible machines and a 4G LTE JDLink modem to connect the machine to the John Deere Operations Center.
“John Deere has led the agriculture equipment industry for more than two decades with satellite-based precision guidance technology,” stated Jahmy Hindman, senior vice president and chief technology officer at John Deere. “Now, we are bringing satellite communications service to the farm at scale so farmers with cellular coverage challenges can maximize the value of connectivity to their operations.”
“The SATCOM solution unlocks the John Deere tech stack so every farmer can fully utilize their current precision agriculture technology in addition to the new innovative solutions they will deploy in the future,” he asserted. “We initiated this process with a fierce focus on delivering value to our customers, and this partnership ensures we have a solution that meets their needs today and in the future.”
John Deere said the SATCOM system will initially be available through a limited release in the U.S. and Brazil starting in the second half of 2024.
John Deere builds on SparkAI acquisition
In March 2023, John Deere acquired SparkAI, a startup developing human-in-the-loop technology to help robots resolve edge cases in real time. Deere was a SparkAI customer before the acquisition.
SparkAI’s technology allows John Deere’s autonomous tractors to get extra help when faced with difficult situations, such as dust, rain, or snow. When the tractor isn’t sure what to do, it now automatically calls SparkAI’s service, passing imagery and other metadata via REST application programming interface (API). The objective is to resolve difficult-to-discern details about the scene to support a real-time decision.
However, this technology requires the tractor to have a high-speed connection. There’s no doubt that John Deere’s new partnership with SpaceX will make this technology available in more areas.