In this post I outline how US agricultural manufacturer John Deere has transformed itself from a traditional manufacturing company to a big data leader. The post was first published in my column for Data Science Central.
John Deere has always been a pioneering company. Its eponymous founder personally designed, built and sold some of the first commercial steel ploughs. These made the lives of settlers moving into the Midwest during the middle of the 19th century much easier and established the company as an American legend.
Often at the forefront of innovation, it is no surprise that it has embraced Big Data enthusiastically – assisting pioneers with the taming of the virtual wild frontier just as it did with the real one.
In recent years, it has focused efforts on providing Big Data and Internet of Thingssolutions to let farmers (and in the case of their industrial division with the black and yellow logo, builders) to make informed decisions based on real-time analysis of captured data.
So in this post I want to take a look at some of John Deere’s innovations in the virtual realm, and how they are leading to change which is said to be “revolutionizing” the world of farming.
The world’s population is growing rapidly, which means there is always going to be an increasing demand for more food. With the idea of genetically modified food still not appealing to public appetites, increasing the efficiency of production of standard crops is key to this. To this end, John Deere has launched several Big Data-enabled services which let farmers benefit from crowdsourced, real-time monitoring of data collected from its thousands of users.
They are designed by the company’s Intelligent Solutions Group, and the vision is that one day even large farms will be manageable by a small team of humans working alongside a fleet of robotic tools, all connected and communicating with each other.
To this end, they are working on a suite of services to allow everything from land preparation to seeding, fertilizing and harvesting to be controlled from a central hub.
The total land available can be split into sections and “Prescriptions” issued with precise instructions for seed density, depth and fertilization. These decisions are informed by Big Data – aggregated data from thousands of users feeding their own data back to the service for analysis.
Crowd sourced agriculture
Myjohndeere.com is an online portal which allows farmers to access data gathered from sensors attached to their own machinery as they work the fields, as well as aggregated data from other users around the world. It is also connected to external datasets including weather and financial data.
These services allow farmers to make better informed decisions about how to use their equipment, where they will get the best results from, and what return on their investment they are providing.
For example, fuel usage of different combines can be monitored and correlated with their productivity levels. By analyzing the data from thousands of farms, working with many different crops in many different conditions, it is possible to fine-tune operations for optimum levels of production.
The system also helps to minimize downtime by predicting, based on crowdsourced data, when and where equipment is likely to fail. This data can be shared with engineers who will stand ready to supply new parts and service machinery as and when it is needed – cutting down on waste caused by expensive machinery sitting idle.
Another service is Farmsight, launched in 2011. It allows farmers to make proactive decisions about what crops to plant where, based on information gathered in their own fields and those of other users. This is where the “prescriptions” can be assigned to individual fields, or sections of fields, and machinery remotely reprogrammed to alter their behavior according to the “best practice” suggested by the analytics.
As well as increasing farmers’ profits and hopefully creating cheaper, more abundant food for the world, there are potential environmental gains, too.
Pesticides and fertilizer can often cause pollution of air and waterways, so having more information on the precise levels needed for optimum production means that no more than is necessary will be used.
Who owns your agricultural data?
Of course, with all of this data being generated and shared – there is one question which needs answering – who owns it?
Deere offers what it calls its Deere Open Data Platform, which lets farmers share data with each other (or choose not to, if they wish) and also with third party application developers, who use can the APIs to connect equipment by other manufacturers, or to offer their own data analysis services.
But this has not stopped many farmers asking why they should effectively pay for their own data, and asking why John Deere and other companies providing similar services shouldn’t pay them – according to American Farm Bureau Federation director Mary Kay Thatcher.
Talks are currently ongoing between the AFBF and companies including John Deere, Monsanto and DuPont over how these concerns should be addressed. As well as privacy worries, there are concerns that having too much information could allow traders in financial markets to manipulate prices.
Farming is one of the fundamental activities which makes us human and distinguishes us from animals. Once we developed farms, we no longer needed to constantly be on the move in the pursuit of food and fertile foraging spots, leading to the development of towns, cities and civilization.
The future of farming?
With the development of automation and Big Data, we are starting to delegate those responsibilities to robots – not because farmers are lazy (they really aren’t, as anyone who lives in an area where agricultural activity goes on will tell you!) but because they can often do it better.
Sure, John Deere’s vision of vast areas of farmland managed by a man sitting at a computer terminal with a small team of helpers will lead to less employment opportunities for humans working the land, but that has been the trend for at least the last century, regardless.
And the potential for huge positive change– in a world facing overpopulation and insufficient production of food – particularly in the developing nations, is something that has the potential to benefit everyone on the planet.
I hope you found this post interesting. I am always keen to hear your views on the topic and invite you to comment with any thoughts you might have.
Author: Bernard Marr