SUE MAREK, Special Contributor
Moline, Illinois-based tractor company John Deere is using experimental licenses in the Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) 3.5GHz spectrum band to explore how it might be able to use private networks to improve its manufacturing operations and/or provide connectivity to local farmers.
The company currently has experimental licenses in Moline, Illinois, and in Bondurant and Davenport, Iowa. Moline is home to the company’s headquarters. Bondurant, Iowa, which is just outside of Des Moines, is where John Deere manufactures its self-propelled sprayers, cotton harvesters, tillage equipment and grain drills. And Davenport, Iowa, is where John Deere makes forestry equipment that can be used in rough terrain.
According to John Stone, SVP of the Intelligent Solutions Group at John Deere, the company is using the experimental licenses to deploy private LTE networks and see how they can be used to streamline manufacturing processes, help with farming applications or even provide connectivity to farmers. “This is truly just an experiment,” Stone said. “The reason we are doing it in those counties is because this is where John Deere has major operations. With the CBRS band there is the potential to do some really interesting things.”
The FCC recently freed the CBRS band for unlicensed operations.
For example, Stone said there are many applications that would be used to improve manufacturing in the company’s plants. He also said that John Deere is interested in any applications that might make a farm more profitable.
This isn’t the first time John Deere has deployed a private network. The company launched a partnership with a group of telecom providers in Brazil in 2018 to build private LTE networks for farmers in Brazil.
Deere teamed with telecom supplier Tropico to provide towers and equipment throughout Brazil where there was no connectivity. The goal was to enable farm managers to be able to monitor field work remotely and in real-time so they can analyze data and make decisions about planting and harvesting schedules.
“They provided the infrastructure and we tethered into their network,” Stone said, adding that this partnership made it possible for large farmers in Brazil to have private networks for their farms. “Is that applicable to CBRS?” Stone asked. “That is something we are keen on exploring.”
Bullish on 5G
John Deere is also looking beyond LTE to 5G. In 2017 the tractor company acquired Sunnyvale, California-based Blue River Technology for $305 million. Blue River makes a technology called “see and spray” that uses cameras combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify plants in a field and then determine whether they need fertilizer or a pesticide.
“See and spray” requires low latency in the network because the tractor has to know which plant is a weed and which is a crop within seconds so that it performs the right function. Latency is the amount of time it takes for a computing request to travel through a network, and 5G can support low-latency connections.
With 5G, Stone said he envisions John Deere being able to explore more computationally intensive AI models like “see and spray” that require a very low latency. And because this data could be stored in the cloud rather than in a computer onboard the tractor, it will enable the company to produce lower cost but still highly effective tractors for farmers. “If the application is in the cloud, it means we could have a lower cost machine. The farmer would just need the modem on the machine to execute and then do the heavier computing in the cloud,” Stone said.
This type of precision farming that is made possible by AI and 5G will also help farmers lower their costs and be more sustainable. “This makes every seed count. Every drop of fertilizer count and every drop of herbicide count,” Stone said. “These are all variables that farmers have to deal with and the technology helps them make sense of it.”