i3 | November 26, 2018

John Stone: Driving Digital Farming at Deere

Cindy Loffler Stevens
John Stone is senior vice president at Deere and Company's Intelligent Solutions Group

John Stone is senior vice president at Deere and Company's Intelligent Solutions Group.

He is leading a digital renaissance for farming. Since his appointment to the position in 2016, he has been leading the company's efforts to deliver innovative technologies that enhance the performance of John Deere equipment and allow customers to improve their operational performance and better manage costs.

Stone joined Deere & Company in 2002 as a project manager and has since held numerous executive leadership positions at the company. Prior to joining Deere, Stone worked for General Electric and before that was an officer in the U.S. Army. He has a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from the United States Military Academy and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Deere & Company provides advanced products and services to its customers who cultivate, harvest, transform, enrich and build upon the land to meet the world’s dramatically increasing need for food, fuel, shelter and infrastructure. Stone says, “This year, we surpassed a significant milestone of having our precision agriculture technology adopted in more than 100 countries and have well over 100 million acres engaged in our digital ecosystem.”

i3 had the opportunity to learn about Deere’s latest advances and their plans for CES 2019.

Can you talk about the cross section of farming and technology?

Our world is changing, from the rapidly increasing population and globalization of resources, to the impact of human interaction on the land. In fact, the Global Harvest Initiative predicts we’ll have about 2.5 billion more people to feed on this planet by 2050. These changes are requiring farmers to produce significantly higher crop production, profitably and sustainably, while they deal with a declining rural workforce. This is only going to be possible by bringing precision ag technologies to the farm. Many outside the farming world might not be aware that Deere has been investing in leading edge technologies for many years. Automation, connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are a few key technologies we’re focused on to build a continually smart, evolving and more efficient farm.

What is precision agriculture? Has this resulted in higher yields and other benefits?

Precision agriculture is all about using technology like sensors, GPS, data, AI and automation to make more informed and accurate decisions. Before the introduction of precision agriculture technology, all fields and crops were treated as if they were the same and had the same needs. For example, by applying the same amount of fertilizer down over the entire field, famers ended up having waste in some areas because the soil couldn’t hold the nutrients and serve the plant at that level in all spots. To better design, develop and bring advanced precision technologies to market, we developed John Deere’s ISG. ISG is at the core of Deere’s innovation, working across all divisions to make sure that the company is aligned in technological advancements. The use of precision ag not only results in higher yields, but these machinery systems also enable farmers to increase their output while controlling costs, conserving land and water resources and reducing the overall environmental footprint of agriculture.

How has your business model changed?

Getting the most out of a farming operation has always been challenging, but today’s farmers face conditions that dictate a new level of effort and concern for their operations, such as changing weather patterns and the availability of arable land. As the challenges became more pronounced, farmers could take advantage of technology advances to optimize farming operations. Deere has always partnered closely with farmers to advance the use of technology on the farm and over time, it became clear that customers needed more and more insights to solve their needs. A clear opportunity emerged for Deere to drive advancements in technology to bring new answers to these evolving customer needs. It meant bringing the tech revolution to the farm to work in combination with Deere machinery to deliver economic impact to the farmer.

As a result, Deere made a strategic investment to ensure its role in the technology revolution on the farm with the ISG. Outside of Deere’s five traditional product platforms and operating globally, ISG has roughly a thousand engineers, developers, data scientists and computer scientists who design and develop the hardware and software that make Deere machines smarter, more precise and more productive. ISG helped capitalize on the use of technologies such as GPS, vision, sensors, robotics and machine learning. Adding this capacity opened the route to precision agriculture, providing software and data-based solutions that work with equipment and analyze outcomes to solve complex problems on the farm.

How is the collected data used and transmitted? Can you explain how the MyJohnDeere platform works?

Data is essential for farming operations today. Think of our machines as platforms for software and data. Our machines collect the highest quality and most relevant data from each job done in the field. Sometimes, this data is analyzed and acted upon in near real time within the machine itself or bringing an operator or remote manager into the loop by streaming data to a mobile device to help quickly identify and address any issues or problems that may come up. Our large ag machines leave the factory with a 4G LTE modem with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and transmit data to mobile devices as well as to the cloud. This connectivity also allows machines to share data with each other while operating together in the field to ensure optimal precision and accuracy of the job being done.

Farming generates a ton of data. We built up a large data platform in the cloud and have developed a robust set of web and mobile apps for farmers to store, visualize, secure and analyze their data. Additionally, since most farmers don’t farm alone, the John Deere Operations Center has over 100 connected software companies offering tools and services that farmers can elect to connect with and utilize. No other company has such a large and diverse ecosystem as the Operations Center. Our extensive APIs enable a collaborative approach across agriculture. The Deere-led eco-system provides farmers with insights for decision making and Deere equipment with intelligence to automate complex operations, both of which are critical to managing the 1,500 variables that can be associated with each acre of farm land. With this online platform, farmers can access, view, archive, manage and share a wide variety of business information right from their smartphone, tablet or computer whenever and wherever they need it. This tool connects customers with their trusted advisors and gives them the ability to make choices about the use and flow of the data. Now farmers can store their data in a system that never forgets.

How is GPS incorporated?

It is important to note that John Deere has our own, captive GPS company in Torrance California called Navcom Technologies whom we acquired in 1999. Our technology allows for accurate localization to within one inch and we have leveraged this technology to now allow our machines to steer themselves through the field on precise guidance lines. Think of the benefits: a farmer using this technology will never plant the same row twice, never miss a row and never spray the same row twice. Most estimates would say that using Deere GPS technology will save a farmer 10 percent of total input costs due to less wasted seed, fertilizer, fuel and time.

GPS technology is also essential to precise data capture, which in turn enables a farmer to make more informed decisions. For example, through GPS technology, farmers today can create geospatial maps of data collected each planting season which can show a farmer what areas of their land was most successful in growing the crop and areas they might want to avoid. Having that insight captured for many years, in some case up to twenty, enables better decision making and more automation of the individual jobs as the farmer can tell the machine where it wants the seeds to go.

Is this just for commercial farming?

Our technologies are used in over 100 countries in the world on farms focused on row and broad acre crops. To provide you with some context, of the 309 million acres of land in the U.S. that grows a crop, 99 percent of it is used for row crops like corn or broad-acre crops like wheat. The other one percent is used for fruits, nuts and vegetables. We are focused on evolving farming practices for both types of crops using AI, robotics, data science and sensors.

Is there a learning curve to using this equipment?

As with any technology, having a comprehensive understanding may not happen overnight, but we’re focused on making the technology impactful and easy to learn. Most people are surprised to hear that farmers are some of the most tech-savvy professionals in the world. We’re seeing customers at all ages and backgrounds embracing and using the technology. We continue to invest heavily in building up capabilities in Digital User Experience research, a truly fascinating and important space.

Can you talk about your presence in Silicon Valley?

In the spring of last year, we announced the creation of our John Deere Labs in downtown San Francisco to create a physical presence in Silicon Valley for prospective partnerships and to advance new technologies in AI, machine learning and robotics. Late last year, Deere also acquired Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley startup, to further strengthen our core capabilities. Blue River Technology’s main product, See&Spray — a smart sprayer system that can distinguish weeds from plants in a field — has the potential to reduce herbicides use by up to 90 percent based on field tests. That is truly a breakthrough, and while we are a couple years away from full production, we see great promise in this technology and for many other Deere machines. Together, we’re helping farmers move from making and implementing decisions at a field level to addressing the needs of each individual plant.

This strategy and vision puts Deere in a unique position to offer software engineers, machine learning engineers and data scientists an opportunity to work for a company that is not only developing cutting-edge technology but helping transform one of the only industries that impacts every single person in the world.

What tech areas do you think will most significantly impact farming in the coming years?

The challenges associated with farming are not going to ease over the coming years, so we’ll continue to see growth in smart technology such as AI and machine learning on the farm. AI and machine learning will become as core to Deere as engines and transmissions are today. In fact, we have a camera sensor on board our new S700 Combine Harvester that uses a convolutional neural net to monitor harvested grain quality and make recommendations to optimize other settings to ensure the best outcome. Think about that — John Deere has machine learning systems in production, in customer hands today. We envision a world where agriculture machines not only navigate without human intervention, but they will perform millions of micro jobs per day better than a human. By continuing to automate more and more machine elements of the operation, the farmer will be able to focus on other, non-autonomous parts of the business.

Machine learning and computer vision technology will begin to open the opportunity to farm at an individual plant level. Machines will be designed to sense, understand and tend to the needs of every plant, maximizing yield and productivity, and reducing costs. Data will play an ever more important role. We’ll see more precise and actionable data generated from the equipment that will not only help improve analysis and better decisions by the farmer but will also help drive the machine learning and autonomous systems I mentioned already. Finally, as autonomy increases, we’ll see more and more farmers interacting with their farm through intuitive user interfaces outside of the machines on the field. I recently met a farmer who said he expects to manage his entire farm from his smartphone by the time he is 40. He is 35 today.

When did John Deere first move into digital farming?

John Deere has consistently pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with technology on the farm, starting with the introduction of our first mechanically powered tractor 100 years ago. More recently, we ushered in the first elements of autonomy to the farm 20 years ago with the acquisition of NavCom, where we integrated highly-precise GPS navigation and self-driving technology into our tractors and other equipment. This was a groundbreaking development which enabled farmers to focus on the other key elements of their operation such as setting adjustments taking place in the cabs of our equipment, rather than focusing on driving in a straight line. We’ve since elevated this technology to equip farmers with machines that not only drive themselves but have the flexibility to control other machines and make smart decisions.

In addition to focusing on other elements of the operation, one critical benefit of this technology is having data on things like the exact positioning of where seeds are placed, year-over-year, in a geo-spatial map which enables a level of actionable insight not previously attainable. The insight gleaned from this documentation, spanning 20 years in some cases, has enabled more precise job automation and will be foundational as we continue innovating.

The introduction of IoT was another major disrupter for the farming world, and we’ve delivered wireless, data and sensor technologies to simplify operational decisions, enable machine-to-machine communication and aid in fleet management. A great example of this technology in action is our remote service capabilities, which enables John Deere dealers to remotely check the health of farmers’ machines proactively. If an alert comes up, the service technician is notified instantly and can remotely analyze the root cause and, in many cases, even solve the issue remotely, without the farmer even knowing about the issue in the first place.

The John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) is a division of Deere that creates advanced AI, machine learning, IoT, mobility, guidance and automation technology to ultimately improve our customers’ productivity, efficiency and profitability. Through partnerships and R&D, we continue to innovate at a scale that’s faster and more advanced than anyone else in the industry and will continue to lead the charge to bring intelligence to farm equipment to enable farmers to feed the world.

We’re shifting from bigger, faster and stronger machines, to solutions that are more automated, easier and precise. We’re also proving that not only does “Nothing Run Like a Deere,” but “Nothing Thinks Like a Deere” too.

What are your global goals for the company?

Farmers need to contend with a lot of challenges stemming from a growing population and unpredictable weather. At the same time, we’re seeing an increase in urbanization and a decrease in arable land and skilled workers in rural areas. Our goals revolve around our farmer customers. We strive to bring leading edge technologies to solve problems and capture opportunities that will make Deere customers the most profitable and sustainable farmers in the world. This year, we surpassed a significant milestone of having our precision agriculture technology adopted in more than 100 countries and have well over 100 million acres engaged in our digital ecosystem. On top of that, 25 percent of the world’s arable land is being farmed with Deere technology. Our global growth isn’t just rooted in products, but in bringing connectivity to rural areas in South America, Africa and India so that the technology works. It’s also driven by a deep customer understanding of regional-specific farming practices which drove each technology value proposition required for customer adoption.

November/December 2018 i3 Cover Issue

Subscribe to i3 Magazine

i3, the flagship magazine from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®, focuses on innovation in technology, policy and business as well as the entrepreneurs, industry leaders and startups that grow the consumer technology industry. Subscriptions to i3 are available free to qualified participants in the consumer electronics industry.