For John Deere, a 50,000-Pound Tractor Controlled By a Phone Is Just the Beginning
At CES 2024, we saw John Deere's plans to make farming the nation's crop supply more efficient and sustainable.
Nick WolnyManaging Editor
A classically trained French hornist by education, Nick Wolny is a managing editor and journalist at CNET, where he oversees coverage related to consumer spending, consumer tech and personal finance. He is also the finance columnist for Out magazine and a frequent television correspondent. Prior to journalism, Nick owned a content marketing agency, a business he converted into a fractional consultancy upon pivoting his career, and has previously written thought leadership columns for Fast Company, Insider, Entrepreneur Magazine and Fortune. A rural Illinois boy at heart, he's now based in Los Angeles.
Growing up in rural Illinois, my friends' parents were farmers. The work is tough: early mornings, long hours and often challenging conditions. One wrong move can make or break the quality of a season's harvest, which helps feed and clothe the nation. At CES 2024, the world's largest tech show, I saw the future of farming. It starts with a phone, an app and a massive driverless tractor with unfolding arms, self-harvesting parts and nozzles that can spray when needed.
John Deere's booth was full of colorful, blinking screens that might feel like data overload at first glance. They contain a ton of real-time data (or demo data, in this case) about the tractors and crops in the field. The 50,000-pound tractors, smart combines and fluffy cotton plants were all window dressing for the valuable information on these screens.
Watch this: I Drove a Tractor with a Phone 1,300 Miles Away
Cotton plants next to digital rows of onscreen data may seem incongruous when compared to mindbending TVs that unfold and AI everywhere. But John Deere and others have embraced autonomous tractors and fertilizer optimization in previous CES showings, and are further building upon these technologies with cloud technology that makes real-time decisions simpler and more efficient for people running the 2 million farms in the U.S.
Remote tractor control is just the beginning
The star of John Deere's booth is undoubtedly the driverless tractor that can be remotely controlled from a phone app, an experience my colleague Bridget Carey got to demo firsthand (watch her video above). What's new has far less visual pizzazz, but is an important piece of the puzzle that's designed to keep the whole efficiency farming project plowing ahead.
Since every square foot of a field is different, much of the opportunity for farmers to grow large amounts of high-quality crops comes from knowing their fields in intimate detail. For example, tiny variations in how many seeds are sown and how deeply the rows are tilled result in hundreds of thousands of data points. It's far too much biodiversity for farming operations to tackle manually.
A new cloud platform called Operations Center is designed to help monitor how different tasks are going, help optimize work plans and glean insights from field data, John Deere said.
On the show floor, I saw a demonstration of one component of this platform, a logistics interface that could track and direct multiple vehicles in real-time. "A combine sitting idly in a field could be costing $5 a minute," Doug Sauder, director of product management and user experience, said. Since the average U.S. farm owns 445 acres, equipment is inevitably spread out, and inefficiency can be treacherous for farmers' delicate margins.
Sauder said the three key themes John Deere was highlighting at CES this year were how to manage a fleet of highly automated or autonomous equipment, how technology can help farm managers in light of challenging conditions and how to leverage data to dive into detail and make decisions that can ultimately help lead to less waste and fewer pesticides sprayed onto crops.
"You really want to be a micromanager and give every seed its most optimal potential," he said. "The way we help farmers do that is by having every piece of equipment that goes to the field collect data in the form of a map."
The industry term for this, "spatial indexing", is key for farm success – and it sounds cool, too.