– Ben Martens

Autonomous Tractors

Twenty years ago, I was going through two summer internships at John Deere headquarters in Moline, IL. The first year there, I worked with what became the Precision Ag group and the second summer I worked in the IT group for the seeding equipment factory line. Both projects were fun, but it has been really interesting to watch that Precision Ag group take off.

When I was there around the turn of the century (might as well just lean into feeling old, right?), Deere was putting their first GPS equipment into farm equipment. At that time, it could show you a screen to help you follow a straight line down your field, record positional yield information during harvesting, and automatically adjust seeding and spraying rates based on your position in the field. It was a lot of fun to work on a computer program and then go test it out in a field! At that time, I heard rumors about a totally autonomous farm that was in development, but their main problem was avoiding surprise obstacles like animals running out in front of the equipment.

This week at CES, Deere announced their autonomous tractor! The farmer drives to the field, tells the tractor what to do and then he can walk away. He can use the phone to check progress or decide what to do if something unexpected happens. I’m sure there will be kinks to work out, but this can be an incredible efficiency gain for farmers who often have to do enormous amounts of work in short amounts of time, especially during planting and harvesting season when they get the right weather. At the beginning, maybe it’s not good enough to let the tractor run all night by itself, but the farmer could at least catch a nap in his truck while waiting for the next intervention point.

If you talked to me senior year of college, I would have told you that I was going to be working for Deere when I graduated. I enjoyed the work and they liked me, but then 9/11 happened and the job market got turned upside down. Deere had a hiring freeze so I ended up scrambling to find a new job and Lockheed was still hiring so I went there instead. I have no regrets about the way things turned out, but I do think I would have had fun at Deere too.