Deere’s Ingredients for Innovation
Around 4,300 software engineers at Deere are working to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable.
At John Deere’s inaugural Tech Summit this past spring in Austin, Texas – the location of one of the company’s micro-technology hubs and a recently purchased farm on which to conduct R&D activities – sustainability and innovation were two of the overarching topics expounded by various executives.
John Deere is providing the executive leadership for this year’s SAE COMVEC conference, scheduled for September 19-21 in Schaumburg, Illinois. Not coincidentally, the theme for the 2023 iteration is “Sustainability: The New Frontier for Innovation.”
This convergence comes as no surprise – nearly every company in the commercial-vehicle and off-highway mobility sectors has its sights set on more-sustainable products and business practices. Innovations in propulsion systems, machine intelligence, computer vision and autonomy – all subjects of technical sessions at the upcoming COMVEC event – are essential to these efforts.
Over the past five years, Deere has increased the number of software engineers in the company by 350%. “If you think about us as a mechanical, capital goods company, that’s true. But we’re also this tech company with 4,300 software engineers who are waking up every day trying to figure out not how to make the algorithm better so you buy more stuff – they’re actually trying to make agriculture more sustainable and more efficient,” said CTO Jahmy Hindman, whose team is responsible for building Deere’s tech stack, an end-to-end equipment solution consisting of hardware devices, embedded connectivity data platforms and applications.
“Our mission by 2030 is to make sure every one of those 10 trillion corn and soybean seeds [growing in the U.S. annually] can be planted, cared for and harvested autonomously if the farmer chooses to do so,” Hindman said.
One of the co-chairs of SAE COMVEC 2023, Julian Sanchez, was introduced at the Tech Summit as a “seasoned technologist” who holds more than 20 patents. As director of emerging technologies, Intelligent Solutions Group, his team is focused on R&D and supporting the deployment of Deere’s next-gen technologies to improve customer profitability and sustainability.
Discussing how Deere innovates – its “ingredients” to innovation – Sanchez said that one of the first filters used when deciding what technologies to pursue is “a deep understanding of customers” and the economics of farming – and anticipating how the economics might change. Deere employs dozens of psychologists, he said, to help engineers measure trust in an objective manner “and track how trust evolves in the use of a new technology so that we can design it such that it’s appropriately used.”
To help embrace “ideas in the periphery” that can lead to disruption and solve “first-order problems,” Deere implemented a startup-collaborator program in 2017. “For us the benefit is those startups are trying to solve known problems to us with a very different lens. Bear Flag Robotics is an example of that and now they’re part of the Deere family.” The Silicon Valley-based startup retrofits tractors with patented AI technology and advanced automation systems.
A willingness to tackle big problems is an essential ingredient, Sanchez stressed. “When people ask me, ‘What’s the next big thing in agriculture?’ Yes, it’s autonomy. Yes, it’s AI. But this problem of understanding the health of the soil at every farm is a really interesting one,” he said. “The holy grail around the topic of soil is being able to do complex chemistry analysis on the go, at scale, with a high degree of geospatial accuracy.”
It’s a sustainability issue – ensuring crop efficiency and eliminating waste – and it’s inextricably tied to the need for innovation. “And we’re going after it with all our might,” he said.