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John Deere acquisition illuminates the future of smart farming

The agtech world is abuzz with news this week that John Deere will acquire Blue River Technology – the creators of the ‘Lettuce Bot’ – for $US305 million.

At its core, Blue River Technology is an artificial intelligence (AI) company. It uses machine learning to enable crop management at the single plant level.

Or, as Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology puts it: "We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field."

Its most prominent creation, the Lettuce Bot, is a device which is towed behind a regular tractor, and uses cameras to detect weeds, as well as lettuce plants that are growing too close together. When the Lettuce Bot discovers any of these nasties, it uses a precision spraying system to apply herbicide to a single plant (an area no bigger than a postage stamp). The relatively new implement already has a hand in around 10% of lettuce production in the United States.

The LettuceBot (pictured) is already being used for around 10% of US lettuce production, according to Blue River Technology

Blue River is now busily adopting this technology for a Cotton Bot – due for commercial release in 2018.

Deere’s investment in Blue River Technology has been compared to its acquisition of NavCom Technology in 1999, which helped establish Deere as a leader in the use of GPS technology for agriculture and accelerated machine connectivity and optimization.

While Blue River Technology is by no means the only company applying machine vision to weed control (investments by GRDC and Horticulture Innovation have developed similar concepts in Australia), the significant price paid for a startup with only 60 employees indicates that the big end of town is taking this technology seriously.

The real story here is the vote of confidence... in farming’s AI future

Another significant difference to Australian prototypes is that Blue River has not attempted to tackle automation at the same time. Its products are designed to integrate with existing farm machinery – making it a stepping stone perhaps to the fully automated systems under development in Australia and other parts of the world.

The hype around this transaction could fool spectators into thinking Blue River’s inventions are more unique or globally significant than they are. The real story here is the vote of confidence by the world’s largest agricultural equipment manufacturer in farming’s AI future.

What do you think? Could you see an implement like this making a difference on your farm? Log in and leave us a comment below!

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