IoT Connectivity in Agriculture: Interview with Deanna Kovar, Director of the Global Operator Station at John Deere
Understand the agritech sector and the value of IoT connectivity
IoT analytics can help enterprises become more efficient, reduce cost, and gain insight into operations. So understanding how to use that data in realtime to make it meaningful is crucial. At the point of writing, the COVID-19 crisis is impacting all industries. With many working from home, and some industries almost fully halted, this period highlights the power of and need for transformative technologies & automation to help keep things running smoothly. In agriculture, IoT connectivity is playing a pivotal role in supporting farming livelihoods and food systems (both now and prior to the coronavirus pandemic).
Lauren: At the most general level, how is the IoT changing how agricultural work is done today?
Deanna: I would say that over the last two decades, digitization and GPS have really led to an immense change in agriculture. If you think about agriculture, farming is about managing variations and making sure that farmers can be the ultimate stewards of the land. And today we’re using technologies like IoT and connectivity to help farmers manage the uncertainty that comes with outdoor manufacturing. So we’re using technology like sensors, telematics, GPS and other digital data management tools to help them improve the decisions they make on their farm. To lower costs, increase productivity, and for the farmer, it’s really about reducing risk.
How is computer vision helping improve operations?
You can think of the farmer as the biggest observer out in the field and when computer vision comes on board we’re able to augment the two eyes and the brain of a farmer into a whole lot more sensors and whole lot more vision in the places that the farmer can’t see.
For example, today we use cameras on our combine harvester that harvests grain in the field, to see into places in the combine that the operator sitting in the seat can’t see, and how to optimize that machine to make sure we’re getting the cleanest grain into the machine and managing the productivity so the farmer can get hat crop harvested very quickly and efficiently. So we’re using the cameras to discern between the good grain and the rest of the plant to send out the back of the harvester so that the machine can automatically adjust the five key settings on the combine to optimize that machine.
So computer vision, to be able to see, observe into places the farmer can’t see, and then make decisions in real-time very quickly to optimize a gigantic machine is really changing the way agriculture is going. It’s not just about the uncertainty that the farmer’s trying to manage with the weather, the different types of social type but also in rural America it’s getting difficult to find the skilled labour who could run that combine on their own. So now with computer vision and the algorithms from machine learning, we’re able to put maybe a less skilled operator in that combine and still do a fabulous job to get the grain out the field and into our grocery stores and onto our plates.
We’ve been on a path to automate the work of farming for 20 years. 20 years ago we bought a company called Navcom technologies which is a GPS company towards California. We’re one of five companies in the world that owns our own satellite correction system and as such we started to really focus on geospatial position - knowing exactly where our machines are so we know exactly where the plants are so we can treat them as related to the land of where they are.
So we’ve been automating ever since then. And in 1999 when we bought Navcom that was about automating the job of driving or steering the machine in the field. And ever since then we’ve been on a continuous path to automate more and more of the operation to be more the eyes and the ears and the gut of the farmer, so they can focus on other tasks they have, or put a less-skilled operator in the machine. So automation is really where we’re focused.
Farming isn’t quite like driving a car. So driving a car where you’re driving from point A to point B and your job’s just to get there and get there safely. In farming, there’s a whole lot of tasks that have to be done and it takes a lot more automation in order to get all of those jobs done in the field.
Whether that’s tilling the soil to prepare it for the seedbed, whether it’s placing the seed two inches apart. On a 5,000 acre farm, there are over 650 million plants and so being able to observe and manage those is really important. And to make your machinery react with it, either to protect it or harvest it is critically important. So automation is where we’re focused.
We talk a lot about proactive maintenance on ‘IoT World Today’, and John Deere obviously has a component of that happening in terms of equipment failure. Tell us a little bit about that.
So our machinery is all equipped with telematics devices and every machine that John Deere sells in the agricultural space comes with a connectivity package so every machine is connected. We’re using the information we’re receiving about those machines and failure modes that we see to prognosticate that failure’s about to happen before it does. Because with all the uncertainty in timing, one of the things a farmer has to manage is timeliness. There’s a window of time to plant, there’s a window of time to harvest, and if you miss those windows you impact your yield very significantly. So downtime is the enemy of the farmer.
So what we’re doing is using connectivity and algorithms that are part of our John Deere Connected Support approach, and we’re providing farmers and their dealers with information, we call it ‘expert alerts’ that the machine is going to have a failure based on everything we’ve seen from it. And that allows the dealer and the customer to work together to execute a fix to that machine before it ever breaks down and eliminating the evil downtime that our farmers so wholeheartedly want to avoid to make sure that they get the maximum yield out of their fields and out of their crop that they’re planting.
Agriculture was already an industry under some duress and farmers have been trying to make their margin for quite some time, so how has COVID-19 affected the industry and how is John Deere approaching this event?
Innovation to serve our customers is at the heart of our work and in the time of a crisis, it’s no exception. Our technologists around the world are working full-steam-ahead to make sure we can bring technologies for farmers that help them reduce costs, increase their yields or lower their risks. We just talked about one of those risk reduction opportunities around John Deere connected to support and using machine telematics with algorithms to diagnose a failure before it happens.
Even in a normal year, these short windows that I talked about are a struggle for the farmer so it’s not just about diagnosing failures before they happen but we’re using telematics to remotely go into a tractor screen when a farmer’s operating the farmer gives us access, and our technicians and our dealerships can help a farmer diagnose the problem or help a farmer set up the machine without getting not even within 6 feet but not even within 6 miles of that machine.
So this connectivity does a lot for us, it’s more than just prognostication, it’s remote display access os we can help the farmer set up these very technical machines, service provider remote we can pull diagnostics off the machine and then we’re using other IoT tools to understand when maintenance is due and working with farmers to make sure they have the parts they need to keep up and running. And so our dealers are using many of these connectivity tools to stay close to farmers but also using web-based ordering tools and things so that farmers can get the parts that they need.
So technology is pivotal to manage through any season, but certainly, this crisis is no exception and we’re continuing to use connectivity and all of the tools in our toolbox to make sure farmers can plant their crop, protect their crop and harvest their crop so that we can all have food on our grocery shelves over the coming months and years.
Thank you, Deanna and Lauren, for sharing this fascinating insight into the role of IoT connectivity in agritech.