John Deere pays $305m for AI start-up to make its IoT tractors smarter

8 Sep 2017

Self-propelled forage harvester. Image: Deere & Company

This week in IoT, John Deere hooks up AI with its smart tractors, wearables are on the rise again and more self-driving cars are to hit US roads.

It isn’t just the kids who are back in school – the entire Irish internet of things (IoT) community appears to be back in action too, in what was a busy week.

This included two IoT players – Taoglas and DecaWave – joining forces to create the world’s first ever ultra-wideband (UWB) antenna range for centimetre-level indoor positioning.

UWB can work as a type of ‘indoor GPS’ to help solve the precision dilemma for indoor applications, bringing much greater levels of precision than current technologies.

Also ‘fuelling’ the Irish IoT economy was VT Networks and Dunraven Systems, which signed a €1m deal to bring more than 250,000 fuel tanks around Ireland and the world, with the aim of reducing maintenance costs and monitoring.

So, what else has been going on in IoT elsewhere in the world?

John Deere snaps up AI start-up to make its IoT tractors smarter

John Deere has accelerated its tech investment over the last number of years, particularly within IoT, as found out last March from its director of product marketing, Richard Johnson.

Now, according to Quartz, the company is paying a significant amount of money – $305m – to purchase an AI start-up called Blue River to help achieve its dream of building a fleet of autonomous tractors.

Blue River’s technology – called ‘see and spray’ – is based on machine-vision tools that let a farmer, in a single action, scan their field for weeds and assess their crops.

Once the data is gathered, an autonomous tractor would be able to travel across a field and hit weeds with the necessary pesticide, but also spray the crop with fertiliser, eliminating the need to do it manually.

In fact, Blue River claims that its method can reduce the amount of chemicals sprayed on a crop by 90pc, which could make it a valuable asset for John Deere in the years to come.

Connected wearables shipments to reach 262m in 2021

Wearables aren’t going away anytime soon, according to IoT market analyst Berg Insight, which predicts there could be as many as 262m wearables in the market by 2021.

Shipments of connected wearables reached 96.5m in 2016, it said, up from 75.1m devices in the previous year. They should reach the 2021 estimate if growth continues at a compound annual rate of 22.2pc.

Even though smartwatches have been on the scene for a while now, it’s expected that shipments will reach in the region of 35m units, marking a 66pc increase year on year, largely led by fitness trackers, with shipments expected to reach 74m units in 2017.

Another interesting finding from Berg Insight is that smart clothing is expected to gain significant traction within the next five years. It estimates that shipments of smart clothing will reach 18.3m units in 2021, up from 1.56m units in 2016.

US approves bill to let thousands of self-driving cars on roads

Major auto manufacturers are celebrating a victory after the US House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars onto US roads, according to Recode.

However, in order for it to become law, the Senate must also give the green light, which could take some time.

The Self-Drive Act would liberalise the legal process of self-driving car testing, allowing manufacturers to work outside of existing vehicle legalisation, therefore eliminating the need to seek a review of the technology before it hits the road.

Representative Bob Lotta, one of the bill’s authors, said prior to the vote: “We have an opportunity today to support and promote the safe testing and deployment of this life-saving technology.

“US companies are investing major resources in the research and development of this tech, and should not be held up by regulatory barriers.”

Is IoT taking us back to serfdom in the Middle Ages?

An interesting piece by Joshua A T Fairfield appeared in The Conversation this week, suggesting that IoT systems, and how secure they are, are bringing us back to the Middle Ages, but under a new ‘digital serfdom’.

Fairfield’s point relates to the increasingly apparent fact that much of the IoT devices we own or use on a regular basis are contributing to a world in which your home is being mapped through a Roomba and sent to commercial partners for their benefit.

The greatest problem, he added, is that it replicates a serf’s life, as they were given land (or an IoT device, in this case), but were told they must work for the lord (major corporations) for the latter’s benefit.

“The expansion of IoT seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.”

An interesting thought experiment, to say the least.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic