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John Deere turned tractors into computers ? what?s next?

CTO Jahmy
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Jahmy Hindman
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Nilay Patel
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Filed under:CTO Jahmy Hindman on farming, data, and right to repairOne of our themes on Decoder is that basically everything is a computer now, and farming equipment like tractors and combines are no different. Half of the states in the country are now considering right to repair laws that would require manufacturers to disable software locks and provide parts to repair shops, and a lot of it is being driven — in a bipartisan way — by the needs of farmers.Transcript has been edited for clarity.John Deere is famously a tractor company. I get to look out five, 10, 15, 20 years into the future and try to make sure that we’re putting into place the pieces that we need in order to have the technology solutions that are going to be important for our customers in the future.One of the reasons I am very excited to have you on Decoder is there are a lot of computer solutions in your products. It’s to make sure that we’re developing technologies that can scale across the complete organization, across those combines you referenced, and the tractors and the sprayers, and the construction products, and deploy that technology as quickly as possible.One of the things The Verge wrestles with almost every day is the question of, “What is a computer?” We wrestle with it in very small and obvious ways — we argue about whether the iPad or an Xbox is a computer. We’re doing computational work on that data in the cloud, and then serving that information, those insights, up to farmers, either on their desktop computer or on a mobile handheld device or something like that. As much as they are doing productive work in the field, planting as an example, they are also data acquisition and computational devices.How much of that is in-house at John Deere? There’s roughly 184 companies that have been connected to Operations Center through encrypted APIs, that are writing applications against that data for the benefit of the customers, the farmers that want to use those applications within their business.One of the reasons we’re always debating what a computer is and isn’t is that once you describe something as a computer, you inherit a bunch of expectations about how computers work. We’re having to think about things like security of data, as an example, that previously, 30 years ago, was not necessarily a topic of conversation. We’ve had to become competent in areas like that because of exactly the point you’re making, that the product has become more computer-like than conventional tractor-like over time.That leads to huge questions. We’ve got folks embedded in development organizations across the company that do nothing every day, other than get up and think about how to make the product more secure, make the datasets more secure, make sure that the data is being used for its intended purposes and only those. That’s a skill that we didn’t have in the organization 20 years ago that we’ve had to create and hire the necessary talent in order to develop that skill set within the company at the scale that we need to develop it at.Go through a very basic farming season with a John Deere combine and tractor. Eventually, we’ve got to harvest some plants.” What are the points at which data is collected, what are the points at which it’s useful, and where does the feedback loop come in?I’m going to spin it a little bit and not start with planting. That data is the inception for a winter’s worth of work, in the Northern hemisphere, that a farmer goes through to assess their yield and understand what changes they should make in the next season that might optimize that yield even further.They might have areas within the field that they go into and know they need to change seeding density, or they need to change crop type, or they need to change how much nutrients they provide in the next season. They’re using that prescription to apply changes to that field in real time as they’re going through the field, with the existing data from the yield map and the data in real time that they’re collecting with the tractor to modify things like seeding rate, and fertilizer rate and all of those things in order to make sure that they’re minimizing the inputs to the operation while at the same time working to maximize the output.That data is then going into the cloud, and they’re referencing it. When the sprayer goes into the field after emergence, when the crops come out of the ground, it’s being used to inform that sprayer what the optimal path is to drive through the field in order to spray only what needs to be sprayed and no more, to damage the crop the least amount possible, all in an effort to optimize that productivity at the end of the year, to make that yield map that is [a] report card at the end of the year for the farmer, to make that turn out to have a better grade.That’s a lot of data. How does that part work?A significant amount of that data is collected on the fly while the machines are in the field, and it’s collected, in the case of Deere machines, by Deere equipment running through the field. There are other companies that create the data, and they can be imported into things like the Deere Operations Center so that you have the data from whatever source that you wanted to collect it from. I think the important thing there is historically, it’s been more difficult to get the data off the machine, because of connectivity limitations, into a database that you can actually do something with it.Today, the disproportionate number of machines in large agriculture are connected. So that data connectivity infrastructure that’s been built out over the last decade has really enabled two-way communication, and it’s taken the friction out of getting the data off of a mobile piece of equipment. It’s the farmer’s data. So that’s why we’re building functionality into things like the Operations Center to help do data analytics and serve up insights to growers.It’s their data. It has to come through the grower because it’s their productivity data. They’re getting better.We have the opportunity to see trends in that data across the datasets that exist today, but I think it’s too early. So if you think of climate change on a global perspective, we’ve got a lot of data for North America, a fair amount of data that gets taken by growers in Europe, a little bit in South America, but it’s not rich enough across the global agricultural footprint for us to be able to make any sort of statements about how climate change is impacting it right now.Is that something you’re interested in doing?Yes. I couldn’t predict when, but I think that the data will eventually be rich enough for insights to be drawn from it. It’s just not there yet.Do you think about doing a fully electric tractor? Whether it’s a tractor or whether it’s some other product in our product line, alternative forms of propulsion, alternative forms of power are definitely something that we’re thinking about. Lower power density applications first, before it gets into some of the very large production ag equipment that we’ve talked about today.What’s the timeline to a fully EV combine, do you think?I think it’ll be a long time for a combine.I picked the biggest thing I could, basically.It has got to run 14, 15, 16 hours per day. Do you think of John Deere’s equipment as integrated suites of hardware, software, and services, or is it a piece of hardware that spits off data, and then maybe you can buy our services, or maybe buy somebody else’s services?I think it’s most efficient when we think of it collectively as a system. Two hundred million acres of corn ground, times 50,000 plants per acre; each one of those plants is creating data, and that’s the enormity of the scale of production agriculture when you start to get to this plant-by-plant management basis.Let’s talk about the enormity of the data and the amount of computation — that’s in tension with how long the equipment lasts. Are you upgrading the computers and the tractors every year, or are you just trying to pull the data into your cloud where you can do the intense computation you want to do?It’s a combination of both, I would tell you. So it’s not uncommon today for a customer who’s purchased a John Deere planter that might be 10 years old to want the latest technology on that planter. That sort of stuff is happening all the time across the industry.I would tell you, though, that what is maybe different now versus 10 years ago is the amount of computation that happens in the cloud, to serve up this enormity of data in bite-sized forms and in digestible pieces that actually can be acted upon for the grower. But having the ability to have millimeter wave type of bandwidth is pretty intriguing for being able to take opportunistic advantage of it when it’s available.What’s something you want to do that the network isn’t there for you to do yet?I think that the biggest piece is just a coverage answer from my perspective. But it’s certainly not moving at a pace that’s rapid enough for us, given the appetite for data that growers have and what they’ve seen as an ability for that data to significantly optimize their operations.Have you talked to the Starlink folks?We have. I think it’s conceivable that in the not too distant future, that could be a very viable option for some of these locations that are underserved with terrestrial connectivity today.Walk me through the pricing model of a tractor. So we do what we can to make sure that the overhead associated with all of those different connected devices is minimized, but it’s not unlike what you’d experience with an iPhone or an Android device.Do you have large growers in pockets where the connectivity is just so bad, they’ve had to resort to other means?We have a multitude of ways of getting data off of mobile equipment. We’re knocking on the door of being able to do it.It’s due to some really interesting technology that’s come together all in one place at one time. That’s come together to give us the ability to start seriously considering taking an operator out of the cab of the tractor.One of the things that is different, though, for agriculture versus maybe the on-highway autonomous cars, is that tractors don’t just go from point A to point B. So we not only have to be able to automate the driving of the tractor, but we have to automate the function that it’s doing as well, and make sure that it’s doing a great job of doing the tillage operation that normally the farmer would be observing in the cab of the tractor. Now we have to do that and be able to ascertain whether or not that job quality that’s happening as a consequence of the tractor going through the field is meeting the requirements or not.What’s the challenge there?I think it’s the variety of jobs. In this case, let’s take the tractor example again — it’s not only is it doing the tillage right with this particular tillage tool, but a farmer might use three or four different tillage tools in their operation. I think the difference there is that the system is so much more complicated today, in part because of software, that it’s not always evident immediately if I make a change here, what it’s going to produce over there. It’s one that we’ve got a tremendously large organization that’s responsible for understanding that complete system and making sure that when the product is produced, that it is reliable and it is safe and it does meet emissions and all of those things.I look at some of the coverage and there are farmers who are downloading software of unknown provenance that can hack around some of the restrictions. They’re now using other software to get around the restrictions that, in some cases, could make it even worse, and lead to other unintended consequences, whereas providing the opportunities or making that more official might actually solve some of those problems in a more straightforward way.I think we’ve taken steps to try to help. And then I think the other one is in and around safety, critical systems, things that they can impact others in the environment that, again, in a regulated fashion, we have a responsibility to produce a product that meets the requirements that the regulatory environment requires.Not only that, but I think there’s a societal responsibility, frankly, that we make sure that the product is as safe as it can be for as long as it can be in operation. Is that a signal you see as, “Oh man, if we don’t get this right, the government is coming for our products?”I think the government’s certainly one voice in this, and it’s stemming from feedback from some customers. I think that what we want to make sure of is that it’s an objective discussion. In terms of data, in terms of control, in terms of relinquishing control of the product once it’s sold.It certainly is a different market.

As said here by Nilay Patel