John Deere and other brand tractors have been on a steady march towards autonomous driving since the introduction of GPS guided steering (autotrac) was introduced in the mid 1990s.  In recent years, tractors have added automated headland turning, machine-syncing that connects multiple machines in the same field, and real-time cloud connectivity. Most of hardware existed for fully autonomous planting or cultivating a field, but full autonomy remained elusive.

There have been many off-field farming robots, like robotic milking machines, that are stationary autonomous machines. And there have been start-ups working on autonomous farming and pilot projects from legacy agricultural companies in the past, but no one has widely commercialized a fully autonomous in-field machine for multiple tasks.  In-field autonomy presents unique challenges because of the unknowns the tractor might encounter in a field that were not there the year before. 

John Deere claims to have addressed these challenges with the new 8R fully autonomous tractor. The tractor was revealed at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The major new technology in this tractor is multiple “stereo” cameras that scan in all directions, combined with cloud-based machine learning and artificial intelligence to understand what the cameras are seeing. When the tractor encounters an image that is not identifiable from the machine learning database, the tractor will stop and alert the farmer of a problem. The farmer can address the problem from his or her smartphone and send the tractor back to work or resolve the problem some other way. This type of situational awareness is what existing guidance technology lacked.

Deere claims the 8R autonomous tractor is ready for production and will be available later this year. This is not a demo but “commercial ready” technology.  The tractor does not appear ready to navigate itself from the farmstead to the field, as that is another technological problem automotive manufactures are still trying to solve.

Still, it’s all very exciting.  My only let down is that Deere choose not to brand this technology with a name like Siri or Alexa.  Wouldn’t it be great to tell your tractor, “Hey John, go plant the 80 acres behind the old schoolhouse.” Maybe that feature is still coming.

You can see the full presentation here:  John Deere Autonomous Tractor Reveal.