Of all the industries that push the buttons of IoT, agriculture is one of the most interesting – and most frequently written about. A study released by Lux Research earlier this month found that the ‘Internet of Agricultural Things’ market features a wide cast of players, from behemoths to startups, and despite the nascent nature of certain projects, the opportunity for reducing costs and improving efficiencies is vast.
Firmly in the former camp – and mentioned in the Lux report – is equipment manufacturing giant John Deere. Lane Arthur, Director of the Information Solutions Group, and speaking at the IoT Tech Expo North America in October, succinctly explains the company’s vision.
“[John Deere’s] history has been to make machines bigger and faster, and they’ve switched their strategy a bit to say ‘you know what, we need to make them smarter and more precise,’” he says. “They have embedded a number of IoT technologies into their machines, in order to better understand what the machine is doing, but [also] better understand how the machine is doing the work the farmer or grower expects the machine to do.
“It’s pretty fascinating the kind of technologies that they have assembled in order to do that,” he adds.
The use of the somewhat disingenuous ‘they’ is explained by the fact that Arthur has only been at John Deere for 12 months, having previously spent several years as VP of information management at DuPont. Deere’s innovation goes back further – arguably as far back as 2001 when the firm’s AutoTrac product, a steering kit based on GPS technology, hit the market.
Right now, the latest product offers farmers and growers ‘sub-inch’ accuracy in harvesting. Arthur uses the example of a planter to illustrate the capabilities on offer. “This is a large machine,” he emphasises. “Cornrows are 30 inches apart, so we might have a 24 row planter that we would pull behind a very large tractor, and [for] that planter, our latest version, every row has three sensors or controllers on that row.
“A 24 row planter would have 72 basically ‘IoT’ devices on that row, and then the planter itself has another five in the centralised hub,” adds Arthur. “So that planter has 77 IoT devices that are capturing data, and the data they’re capturing is how the machine interacts with the soil, as well as where the seeds are being placed, so we can see what’s called ‘singulation’ of the seed. All of this is happening at six to 10 miles an hour on a tractor.
“This is really important for our growers in the sense that they can be sure that if they had a pass in the field to do planting, for example, then they can come back with a sprayer and make sure that everything is lined up exactly right.”
The data needs to go somewhere, of course. A modem-like device inside the tractor is able to transmit 2G, 3G and wireless connectivity, and the data then goes into the cloud. Naturally, there are a couple of challenges to this; some of which the company is better placed to handle than others. Educating farmers on how best to utilise the data they’re given is one thing; the connectivity side, and the dreaded black spots in rural areas, is quite another. “It’s kind of a long putt, if you will,” says Arthur. “We have to develop technologies around that – how do we store it and move it later. We have to be smart about what we do.”
In terms of the event itself, Arthur says the industry that most excites him right now is in automotive. “The autonomous automobile area is one of great interest to me,” he explains, “because we solved a certain problem around how to use satellites and drive around machines, [and] the automotive industry is solving a similar problem in a very different way, using a variety of sensors and fusing those sensors together – using a lot more AI.”
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched what it called the Moral Machine, which offers participants ethical dilemmas over what driverless cars should do and why.
Arthur admits the ethics element intrigues him. “Essentially, you end up having to put some ethics into your AI to make some decisions,” he says. “[If] I have a ball go across the street in front of a car, do I hit the ball or not? [If] I have a dog go across the street in front of a car, do I hit the dog?
“The ethics around the AI ptiece is fascinating to me.”
Lane Arthur will be presenting an IIoT case study on ‘The Connected Farm: Today and in the Future’ within the Connected Industry conference at the IoT Tech Expo North America, October 20th, 4:30pm.
Go to www.iottechexpo.com for more news about the event.