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What does Deere’s fully autonomous tractor mean for sustainability in agriculture?

While an unmanned tractor can help with labor shortages and overcoming seasonal limitations, the sustainability implications are a little more varied.

Unmanned tractor

John Deere's autonomous tractor can till soil without a driver in the cab, changing the landscape of farming. Image courtesy of John Deere. 

When it comes to technological breakthroughs and innovation, farming equipment giant John Deere might not be the first name that comes to mind. But at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show this week, Deere made one of the splashiest announcements of the event: unveiling the first fully autonomous tractor for large scale farming production. 

Here are three things you should know about Deere’s autonomous 8R tractor and what they mean for sustainability. 

1. It’s building on 20 years of technology 

Tractors have been self-driving for a while for more consistent tilling, straighter and more accurate planting leading to better harvests and higher efficiencies. But these tractors still needed a farmer sitting in the driver’s seat even if they weren’t touching the wheel most of the time. Deere’s fully autonomous tractor finally releases the farmer from the cab. Farmers control the tractor from an app on their phone or computer and the tractor can position itself, drive the length of the field, turn around, maneuver around obstacles and come back for refueling all on its own using six pairs of cameras as well as AI and machine learning. 

What does this mean for sustainability? 

Instead of having to sit in a tractor for eight to 12 hours a day, a farmer has time to work on the projects that often get overlooked when they have to focus on the tactical parts of farming exclusively. Those projects could involve figuring out how to farm in more sustainable ways, which can take a lot of time and problem solving to uncover. 

Deere’s fully autonomous tractor finally releases the farmer from the cab.

2. It only does tillage for now 

Deere hopes the tractor will shorten the long list of duties farmers have on a daily basis. And while Deere has its eyes on a tractor that can do everything from planting to harvesting, this model can only prepare the fields via tillage. 

What does this mean for sustainability? 

Switching the no-till agriculture has been one of the most visible and popular regenerative agriculture techniques. No till can sequester more carbon into the soil. But no till is a challenge for farmers when the transition can result in two to three years of reduced yields before harvests start turning around. This tractor gives farmers an easier way to complete tillage that could encourage them away from pursuing a more sustainable alternative such as no till. 

3. It will dramatically increase data 

At CES, Deere emphasized how the tractor will collect data about the soil on every pass of tillage, creating a digital footprint of the farm. And because the autonomous tractor can run longer and harder than a human could, the data collection will be higher than could be achieved before. Farmers will have access to all this data at their fingertips on the smartphone and Deere has encrypted it on both sides to ensure privacy of a farmers business. There are concerns that Deere might start charging farmers to access it.

What does this mean for sustainability?

The adage "what gets measured, gets managed" is a core principle in sustainability. Collecting more and better data on the land, soil, plants and harvests could help farmers make sustainable changes. If the autonomous tractor allows farmers a better look at their lands and they use that information to make adjustments that are better for the environment, Deere’s tractor could bust open the door on sustainability on farms in a way we have never seen before. 

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