Video: John Deere autonomous tractors and the quest for more food

Willy Pell, CEO of Blue River Technology, a John Deere company, previewed his upcoming keynote at Sensors Converge with sage advice for autonomous tech developers. He also shared a sense of urgency about global food needs and labor shortages that demand new tech such as autonomous tractors.

“We’re not getting any more land and we are getting more people. We are going to have to do more with what we have. Our mission is an extraordinary mission,” Pell said in a video interview with Fierce Electronics.

He delivers his keynote at Sensors Converge being held June 24-26 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Using autonomous tractors and other modern tech, farmers can be more productive amid labor shortages and fitting in crucial work, overnight in some cases, to beat bad weather.   When he joined early stage startup Blue River in 2012, Pell  said he realized the fastest pathway to a production robot was not going to happen with cars on roads, but on farms where an autonomous tractor senses if something is in the way and then stops, without the worry of being rear-ended on a highway.

 Deere bought Blue River in 2017, and Pell is able to impart personal insights about what the broader tech industry can learn from Deere’s development of autonomous tractors and other tech.

“The biggest thing is figuring out being realistic about what the technology can accomplish,” he said. “There’s a tendency in Silicon Valley and the tech world to overscope the projects. Self-driving is a great example.” While automated driver assist technologies were being laughed at in the 2012 time frame because they weren’t big enough or disruptive enough, “yet here we are 10-plus years later and we don’t have full self-driving cars and it would be great if we had really great automated driver assist technologies, even if it wasn’t fully autonomous.

“I think the key to being a great product developer is deeply understanding that technology. Technology is this weirdly-shaped puzzle piece and our job is to fit it in this weirdly sharped world. It’s really looking at the world for those use cases that really fit where the tech is today. I think that’s what [Deere] has done extremely well.”

The advantage of using autonomy with tractors on farms fits into his premise. “You need to have it wrong and be OK. These are learning-based systems and the only way to get good performance is by shipping it. By shipping it, you experience the world and you get that data back and you’re going to learn from that data and your product will improve. You have to have some path where the machine can be wrong but it’s OK.”

In one example with autonomous tractors, “If something’s in the way, we can stop and no one is going to rear-end us and we’re not going to cause a pileup…So really, these systems have to be effectively perfect to be useful and I think the key is finding these ways where you can have these imperfect systems grow towards high performance in the wild.

Willy Pell is CEO of Blue River Technology, a John Deere Company. He delivers his keynote “One Chance Per Year: Why AgTech Innovation Matters to Every Person on the Planet” on June 25 at Sensors Converge, held in Santa Clara, Calif., June 24-26.  Register to attend in person.