When John Deere looks into its crystal ball, apparently it sees not only smart machines, but also machines smart enough to learn: Artificial intelligence. That’s why Deere announced Wednesday a $305 million agreement to buy Blue River Technology, a 6-year-old Silicon Valley company that specializes in artificial intelligence for agriculture.
This is not Deere’s first purchase of a high-tech California company. Twenty years ago, it bought NavCom Technologies, a global positioning company that became the base of Deere’s satellite guidance system. More recently, Deere established an office in the San Francisco area to better tap into the Silicon Valley technology vein.
WHAT THEY GOT
Founded in 2011 by a couple of Stanford grad students, Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden, Blue River says its mission is to make farming more sustainable through robotics and computer vision. It already has unveiled two working models of machines that can recognize their environment and make decisions based on that recognition.
Blue River’s LettuceBot earned a 2017 AE50 Award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers for its ability to roll through a field to thin lettuce for a healthier crop. Up to 20 onboard processors make more than 5,000 decisions per second, telling the LettuceBot which seedlings to save and which to destroy with spray nozzles precise to within 1/4-inch.
A larger device called See & Spray uses similar technology to locate, recognize and destroy weeds in row crops. Blue River has tested the system in cotton fields in Texas and Arkansas. From a distance, the rig looks like a traditional hooded sprayer. It is 30 feet wide and can be pulled behind a tractor at up to 8 mph. Even at that speed, its sensors can see a weed, recognize it for what it is and unleash a squirt of herbicide that is accurate to within 1 inch. Testing in soybeans is next.
It’s easy to understand how that kind of “gee whiz” factor could attract Deere’s attention.
“We certainly have aspirations that the machine learning technologies that Blue River is already demonstrating in the field can help make John Deere equipment do a better job in every field,” Deanna Kovar, director of production and precision ag marketing for John Deere, told DTN/The Progressive Farmer.
The LettuceBot and See & Spray may eventually come to market as John Deere products; it’s too early to tell. But those two potential products are not the reason Deere wants to buy Blue River. The company’s “super-engaged and super-smart folks” — as Kovar called them — are likely more attractive in the long run.
The plunge into artificial intelligence is part of Deere’s game plan. It’s the “next wave of allowing us to move from field level decisions to plant level decisions, and from doing it in advance to doing it on the go. And that’s really exciting,” Kovar said.
For the moment, a Deere press release says, “Blue River will continue to operate as a standalone business with the same entrepreneurial spirit that has led to its success in applying machine learning to achieve agriculture solutions.”
Deere says the 60-person firm will remain in Sunnyvale, California, and hopes the transaction will close before the end of the year.