"We do consider ourselves a technology company. We wanted to engage the tech company and tell the story of agriculture," said Julian Sanchez, John Deere's director of technology innovation. That narrative includes the giant combine harvester the company had in its CES booth. With tires taller than most attendees, it quickly became Instagram fodder.
"That harvester takes pictures of the grain and makes decisions in real time," Sanchez said. The machine can detect subtle differences in the grain as it's being sucked into it.
"This is the first time we've showcased what we do. One of the reasons we're doing that is I think there's an underappreciation for how much AI and machine learning and camera technology and sensing that's going on in this vehicle," said Margaux Ascherl, John Deere's UX lead, automation.
Feeding the world has become an increasingly efficient task over the decades. Companies like John Deere need to leverage as much tech as possible to help farmers produce the largest possible yield from their land. That means everyone involved in agriculture is embracing tech before most of the population.
For example, John Deere is celebrating its 25th year using GPS. Over the past two decades, its system has evolved to be accurate within 2.5 centimeters. Your phone is accurate to about three meters. It needs that accuracy so that its vehicles can do their job along narrow pathways among crops. If a tractor is off by an inch or two, it's destroying food.
The company is able to offer this type of precision thanks to more than 60 land-based sensors that help calibrate the GPS signal from satellites. It even takes into account tectonic movement. That information is then beamed to John Deere's vehicles.
To showcase its technology John Deere offered a ride in an autonomous tractor. Using GPS and computer vision, it stuck to its route so well it was uncanny. In the cab of the 8370R Row Crop Tractor there were displays to control aspects of the vehicle, including any smart attachments the farmer may have added. It had a camera so the driver could see what the computer vision system was looking at and its driving autonomously. It's impressive.
It's very smart, and smart is how we feed a growing population. It's easy to not give a second thought to the people and machines that put food on our tables, but the reality is that these folks might be the biggest nerds out there and they're using tech to keep us all alive.