John Deere will be first to offer high-powered fully autonomous production tractors

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For the first time John Deere is taking the operator outside of the tractor with the release of self-drive 8R Series models that can be ordered now for an end of year delivery

John Deere armed a standard 8R 410 wheel tractor with engine power of 320kW (410hp) to carry the torch for their autonomous tractor range and fitted it with a TruSet-enabled chisel plough and GPS guidance system to work without an operator on-board

With the imminent release of John Deere’s 8R Series self-drive tractor it will mean farmers short of operators will now be able to run a tractor 24 hours a day regardless of the weather or daylight with no on-board operator cost.

And on top of that these fully autonomous tractors will do a better job than any operator as they will be GPS guided to complete every run more accurately than an operator could possibly achieve.

John Deere’s 8R Series 410 tractor can be purchased now fully loaded, while other models from the series are ready to be converted to autonomous operation for large-scale production and will sport six pairs of stereo cameras to enables 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance. A direct feed can be checked on your mobile from any camera.

The self-drive tractor is also continuously checking its position relative to a geofence, ensuring it is operating where it is supposed to, and is within less than 25mm of accuracy. All input is analysed by machine vision algorithms, that are ready to spot unexpected obstacles.

Long time operators can take a break from 16 hour working days across six days a week and hand that task over to the first production run self-drive John Deere 8R Series 410 models

To launch into self-drive operation is very simple, just configure the tractor for the autonomous operation you have in mind. Then, using a John Deere Operations Center Mobile, swipe from left to right to start the machine. Once the tractor is given its instruction it sets off to work autonomously, but the farm manager will still have full control over the operation from their mobile phone where everything can be monitored very closely at all times.

The John Deere Operations Center Mobile provides access to live video, images, data and metrics, and allows a remote farmer to adjust speed, depth and more.

These autonomous models will open up more production on family farms previously starved of quality operators, farm managers can now attend to raising more income, instead of spending countless hours running down furrows that are better left to self-drive tractor models.

You will be informed when anything is required, such as fuel levels and any obstacles the tractor has encountered, or anything else that may need attention. But for well-established cropping paddocks, there is little the farm manager will need to attend, other than a refuel.

The race to be first with an autonomous (self-drive) tractor has been a heavily contested fight up-until now with the victor expected to be lauded with additional market share as farmers race to be the first in their district to buy an autonomous model.

John Deere wanted us to believe their autonomous electric drive tractor would lead us into the future with a 500kW (680hp) on-board power source – but this project could be an expensive one to resurrect following the 8R Series release

Of all the contenders, John Deere looked stuck in the mud with its front running autonomous candidate being the almost impossible to grasp all-electric powered single axle E1 tractor.

And while the E1 looked impressive in the power stakes with 500kW (680hp) on-board, there was obviously an incredible amount of engineering still to complete including a viable steering system that it still lacked.

And Deere was about to be left in the dust when CNH Industrial won the bidding rights at US$2.1 billion to take over the OMNiPOWER platform (formerly DOT) from Raven Industries in June 2021.

CNH Industrial made a US$2.1 billion bid and with that appeared to control the future of autonomous farm vehicles

For all intents and purposes, the OMNiPOWER platform has been the front runner to replace current tractor power on farms worldwide.

But tempering an immediate change over to platform power, it was always obvious that leading tractor makers didn’t want to end strong market sales they have enjoyed since the 1940’s, and OMNiPOWER could easily take those sales away from them.

To stay in the game and cut OMNiPOWER off at the knees, some immediate action was required from John Deere. And it came to pass that one smart Deere executive brokered a deal to buy-out Bear Flag Robotics, a fledging Silicon Valley based start-up only founded in 2017.

Bear Flag Robotics had all its dreams answered when John Deere took it over for US$250 as up until that time the company simply offered a conversion kit to make existing tractors autonomous – photo: Bear Flag Robotics

It only cost John Deere US$250 million to gain technology that would see John Deere run down a much quicker path and accelerate its on-farm autonomous technology to the point of offering 8R Series tractors in 2022. A first for a high powered tractor.

John Deere already had accumulated technology from its $US305 million buyout in 2017 of Blue River an advanced robotics company, then followed in 2019 an exclusive agreement with Netherlands based company Precision Makers to supply further autonomous technology.

With the advantage of this combined locket of autonomous technology it came to pass that Bear Flag Robotics actually held the missing link that Deere has craved for the past 5 years to launch a self-drive tractor range.

See more about the Bear Flag Robotics deal on this link.

John Deere has placed an each-way bet by offering farmers a traditional tractor that can be operator driven but one that has the advantage of being self-driven for labour intensive tasks such as tillage and seeding

What farmers can expect in a self-drive

John Deere has chosen well in nominating 8R Series wheel tractors as the first the company will offer under their Self-Drive banner.

There are seven wheel models in the 8R Series and they offer a full complement of engine power that ranges from 169 to 302kW (230 to 410hp).

Farm owners and mangers will be surprised at the immediate and obvious labour savings that tractors offering self-drive offer. Take a look at this video link.

Multiple front-axle choices are available and include mechanical front-wheel-drive (MFWD) or ILS and this gives growers and contractors the choice to match the workload of their operation precisely.

Each tractor in the 8R Series is equipped with a Central Tyre Inflation System (CTIS) that saves time when adjusting the pressure required for paddock and transport operations. This system automatically changes tyre pressure when “road” or “paddock” settings are engaged on 8R tractors equipped with Independent-Link Suspension (ILS).

John Deere’s 8R 410 has one of the best operator cabs in the industry but it simply won’t get used as much as previously

For road transport, increased pressure gives greater fuel efficiency, reduced tyre wear and improved ride and handling.

While in the paddock lower pressure and a larger footprint provides more lug engagement to reduce slip and ground pressure.

And while John Deere is now adding an autonomous dimension as far as an onboard operator is concerned, it is worth noting there are humans in the loop, and not just the farm manager.

When the cameras spot something unexpected, images are sent to the John Deere operations center where a manual check will take place to see if an obstacle is an issue, or it will resolve itself. If it’s a real issue, it will be reported to the farm manager as an alert on their mobile app.

The farm manger can then view the image and decide if they want to plot a new course or check the situation in person.

The algorithm in the autonomous system can identify things such as birds flying and knows you don’t have to stop for those. But if you have your favourite dog stray into the path of a 302kW (410hp) tractor thundering along a furrow at 50kph, then the system is programmed to stop the tractor before impact.

If you see this tractor thundering toward you and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop – please move out of it’s way

John Deere has played an each-way bet by offering farmers a traditional tractor that can be operator driven as you would normally for certain tasks, but one that has the advantage of being self-driven for labour intensive tasks such as tillage and seeding.

Farmers already busy with harvesting can now set and forget their tractor for tasks that are sometimes put off due to other more pressing commitments.

John Deere will also be selling its autonomy package as equipment to be retrofitted onto a number of its more recent tractor releases.

Years of fusion of all of the technologies that agriculture has been leveraging for a couple of decades now can be seen in this latest step by John Deere into becoming the first high-powered tractor range to offer self-drive.

It’s the start of an autonomy journey that will eventually stretch all the way through the farm production cycle. The only unknown is to whether the end of that cycle will still see tractor power incorporating a cabin for the occasional onboard operation. It most likely will not.