A day after John Deere announced its acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics on Aug. 5, two of Deere’s autonomous agriculture leaders fielded questions via a conference call with reporters across the country about what the new partnership means for the agriculture industry and for Deere, whose Intelligent Solutions Group operates an expansive research and testing center in Urbandale.  

Bear Flag, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, three years ago became one of the inaugural participants in Deere’s Startup Collaborator program. Through that connection, Deere’s automation teams recognized that the company’s system could significantly help Deere accelerate its own efforts toward its goal of fully autonomous equipment.

The 134,000-square-foot Intelligent Solutions Group facility in Urbandale, which opened two years ago, provides a focal point in Central Iowa that’s “devoted to problem solving with technology, collaboration, testing and development for John Deere precision products and services,” as Deere officials said when it was launched. The $33 million facility augments Deere’s more than 25-year track record of incorporating technology such as robotics and sensors into farm equipment.

Dan Leibfried, director of automation and autonomy with Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group

In introducing the webinar, Deanna Kovar, Deere’s vice president of Production & Precision Ag Production Systems at the company’s Moline, Ill., headquarters, said that Bear Flag “is really aligned with John Deere’s smart industrial strategy and our focus on delivering smarter machines that help our farmers grow more.”

She was joined by Dan Leibfried, director of automation and autonomy with Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group in Urbandale. Bear Flag “will be connected deeply into the Urbandale office,” Liebfield said.

They’re going to remain localized in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area as an organization, but we’ll look to augment their talent with those that are in Urbandale and vice versa over time in order to accelerate the journey,” he said. “John Deere has a wide global footprint of technologists from western Europe to Asia to South America and multiple locations across North America, and we’re excited about what that means not only for our, for our company but ultimately for our customers.”

Why is developing fully autonomous agricultural equipment important? . 
Kovar: If you think about agriculture today, timeliness is really important. It’s important that you get your seed in the ground right when you need it, that you kill a weed before it becomes a real pest, and that you get your crop out of the field at harvest. In agriculture, many of those jobs are done simultaneously. In the fall we see combines in the field harvesting corn, and at the same tillage equipment is preparing the seedbed for the next year. 

As labor gets more and more difficult for our farmers to attract, it’s hard for them to get all those jobs done — and not getting the job done means that it likely impacts their yield the following year, potentially. And so autonomy is going to be another opportunity for us to put another tool in our toolkit to make sure that our John Deere farmers are the most productive and the most sustainable farmers in the world. The addition of Bear Flag Robotics to our family will allow us to accelerate our ability to do that in the long run. 

How does Deere define “full autonomy”? 
Liebfried: Maybe just starting back at the beginning of our precision ag journey 20 years ago when we came out with AutoTrac — that’s really the ability to do hands-free guidance up and down the field to improve the overall operation. That had an operator in the cab that could override the system and take control at any point in time. What we found with that is it changed the game of agriculture, it improved it a lot. We look at full autonomy as being able to remove the operator from the environment of the equipment, while still having the ability to remotely monitor and make decisions both on the machine function as well as ensuring that the quality of the job is done well. 

Can you describe the robotics and technology that works with the tractor, and how it maintains that communication? 
Liebfried: The technology we’re talking about here is utilizing sensor inputs from things like radars, lidars, camera technology as well as high-performance computing systems. Those are all connected to the cloud in order to allow a remote manager to see into that environment when needed in order to make decisions. If there are not that need to be addressed. First, that ultimately give the machine itself, situational awareness, similar to what a human would be doing in the machine. To be able to free up those that available labor to focus on other aspects of the farm operation at the same time. 

Liebfried, who recently visited Bear Flag’s Bay Area headquarters and met its 30 employees, said he “enjoyed seeing their excitement and their commitment and passion about the agricultural space and solving big problems that impact the world.” 

During Bear Flag’s time with the Startup Collaborator program, “we gave them access to channel partners and customers to test their solutions in the market with real-world customers,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for us to get to know them and for them to advance their  system to add value to the actual ag producers.”  

That testing was done primarily with tillage equipment; in California and other western and southern states, where tillage is done nearly every month of the year. The technology was effective with a variety of crops, from orchards and specialty crops like lettuce, tomatoes, cotton and wheat. 

“The solution isn’t oriented towards just one segment. It’s quite universal across a large segment of customers, and ultimately the ability to put this on the install base of the tractors that are out there in the field today really helps to accelerate the journey of getting this value to the customer base itself. 

What do you anticipate for installing Bear Flag equipment directly at Deere factories? 
Liebfried: I think that the roadmap still has to evolve relative to integration into the factory. Again, we’re going to meet customers where they’re at. Some customers are operating equipment for a number of years and we want to serve them with the equipment that they have, adding value- added technology on top of that, and as the technology gets adopted, that evolves. We constantly look at those [adoptions of systems] to make decisions on when to factory install or factory integrate the equipment or the technology into the base equipment as well. So the future is a little uncertain as to the timing of that but I’m confident that this is going to evolve and we’ll see that over the course of the next three to five years.