Deere raises a green flag over robotics company

Bear Flag Robotics provides retrofited autonomous solutions for existing machinery. This Deere tractor is performing post-harvest tillage on a Californaia farm.  |  John Deere photo

Deere acquired Bear Flag Robotics, expanding the farm equipment company’s labour reduction technology platform

Farming is a game of timing, precision activities and work, in its most fundamental form.

Important stuff has to get done on time and machines can be really good at that stuff, especially when there aren’t enough skilled people around.

That is an over-simplified version of what San Francisco’s Bear Flag Robotics has been developing. Its robots replace hands-on work on the farm. Farmers find that appealing, especially now, as skilled farm workers become harder and harder to get.

John Deere also saw the value in the technologies that Bear Flag has been developing. Four years ago, the machinery giant began a relationship with the startup robotics firm. This summer it paid US$250 million to consummate the union.

Dan Liebfried said Deere hears from its farmer customers regularly about the effects that a lack of labour on the farm has on their operations and lives.

The director of autonomy and automation at Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group said his company knows it is “not only a problem, of today, but it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find labour going forward. Solutions like autonomous technology and our relationship with Bear Flag Robotics will help to solve those challenges.

“The impact of not having labour available to execute jobs (in the) field when they need to be done in those narrow windows of opportunity agriculture presents to producers each and every day, is serious,” said Liebfried.

What Bear Flag has and Deere wanted is autonomous tools for farm tractors, providing sensors, actuators and software giving farm machinery situational awareness. Farm equipment has to navigate difficult terrain in constantly changing environments, operating precisely and repeatedly with durable reliability. Something humans typically, when paired with good machines, can provide.

Aubrey Donnellan and her team at Bear Flag saw the opportunity that has been created as the people part of that equation fell apart.

“It is about decoupling that reliance on labour,” she said.

“It’s not just about going from point A to point B. It is automating the work. And understanding all the failures that can take place in these complex environments to ultimately give the farmer more strategic was to deploy resources and run more hours in the day,” said Donnellan.

So far, the young company has been delivering autonomous tillage tools to producers on a limited scale with most of that in the California special crops and orchard operations. The company has recently increased the size of the machinery it runs for discing, harrowing and plowing.

Donnellan said the company is situationally aware itself and knows there are significant markets beyond tillage and is currently developing other applications for its gear.

Deere’s Liebfried said the company has a significant history in the precision agriculture guidance and operations automation space, reducing the work of producers in the field. The next step is leveraging their knowledge, time and skills for more important tasks.

He said the agricultural industry has long known the value of the repeatable accuracy that machines bring.

“It’s about ensuring that a job is done to the highest level of quality. We believe we’ve got a critical mass in that space and value to offer to take this big step in autonomy,” he said. Deere was also looking for tools and technology designs that could be used to retrofit existing farm equipment and Bear Flag was working in that direction and already had products working in the field.

Another feature that Deere said it appreciated was its focus on the safety of its technology.

“And as a company, they are focused on adding value to growers. That made them a fit for our culture,” he said.

Bear Flag Robotics came to Deere through the machinery builder’s Startup Collaborator program. Donnellan said Deere opened its development team’s doors for the young business, helping it understand field operations and farmers’ needs.

Liebfried said Bear Flag Robotics has mapped out future plans for further rollouts and development.

“We are going to keep supporting Bear Flag’s current customers and make sure they get the same excellent experience that Bear Flag has been providing,” he said.

Donnellan said a small firm in the farm equipment business faces a lot of challenges when it comes to providing distribution and support for its customers and Deere is able to provide them with expansion that isn’t practical for most smaller operations.

Deere, too, will be learning, said Liebfried, about how to put autonomous tools to work from the dealer level, he said, looking back to his experience with the rollout of Autotrac in 2005.

“Upskilling and building channel capabilities are part of it. In 2011, we started connecting machines to the cloud. Now (with artificial intelligence) with See and Spray we are building new capabilities,” he said.

Donnellan said Bear Flag’s ability to be retrofitted to existing equipment and field processes, including larger machinery, makes it a competitive technology and “gives farmers the opportunity to experience autonomy in a meaningful way.”

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