John Deere: On partnerships, collaboration and security in IoT for agriculture

(c) Debenport

“For us, it starts with the ability to precisely guide a machine – and then we are trying to put more and more smarts into everything we build.”

That one sentence from Lane Arthur (left), director of the Information Solutions Group at agricultural manufacturing giant John Deere, adequately sums up the company’s technological manoeuvres. For a firm which was founded in 1837, its recent forays into the Internet of Things (IoT) have been suitably impressive. From using iPad apps, to collecting data on agricultural machines, to collating it all in the cloud; it all aims to help farmers and growers make the most of what they’ve got.

Some of the technology John Deere is putting together is described by Arthur as “fascinating.” Take the example of a planter. If cornrows are 30 inches apart, and you have a 24 row planter pulled behind a large tractor with three IoT-enabled devices on each row collecting data in real-time and being sent to the cloud, plus five devices in the centralised hub, that makes 77 IoT devices per planter. This data can then be used to assess where seed is being placed at a singular level, how the machine is interacting with the soil, and so on.

“I think the other thing that surprises people is the level of technology that we actually have in the ag[riculture] industry, and how sophisticated our farmers have to be in order to farm,” notes Arthur. Yet John Deere is aware that they can’t give their customers the world in a weekend.

Arthur’s role forces him to put on various hats, from garnering customer feedback, to leading an analytics group, to engaging with other companies. “One of the personality traits of John Deere that kind of surprises people is we don’t want to do it all,” he explains. “We want to partner with other companies and other groups in order to do this together, and we believe that’s the best approach to have going forward.”

A quick glance on the company’s corporate news page tells you all you need to know: a data-driven partnership with construction software firm HCSS here; an acquisition of European precision planting firm Monosem there. It is reminiscent of the uneasy alliance between tech and automotive firms in the connected car space. Unless your name is Elon Musk, then at some point you’ll have to cosy up – take Toyota’s deal with Microsoft for instance, or Audi and AT&T, both earlier this year.

Arthur notes the importance of putting partnerships in place, in a wider aspect of collaboration, as well as the importance of educating their customer base on how to make the most of what they have. “The biggest hurdle that we face as an industry today is the ability for that farmer to integrate the information that they have and turn it into a decision that needs to be made,” he explains.

He wryly notes that, in that sense, it’s not unlike any other industry. But by asking the farmer to be the main integrator, and with advisors coming out of the woodwork on subjects ranging from machinery, seed, and chemicals, an operation which streamlines the data process is in order.

Enter John Deere Operations Center. “We wanted farmers to be able to see the data that they have, so they’re able to see how things are working,” explains Arthur. “Today, they can collaborate with others, they have a number of trusted advisors that they rely on to help them in their business, just like any big business does. We created the ability for them to share data and basically create partnerships on that.

“We’re working really hard to make this as easy as possible for them.”

Yet while ease of use is all well and good,one thing is missing from this analysis. When the topic of security comes up – as it always has to when discussing the IoT – Arthur gives a circumspect view. “It’s something that we’re very concerned about,” he says. “I would say that our perspective is that we have to provide the latest and greatest security protocols and technology that we can, and that starts at the machine level, [then] work your way up through the cloud and other areas.

“For us, it’s critically important because we’re working to be that platform – or one of many platforms – for the industry, and so how can we be sure we’ve got the latest and greatest technologies that we’re applying to that?

“I wouldn’t say it was a big issue on the ag side – I would say it’s an equal concern no matter what industry you were in, and ag is not excluded.”

Lane Arthur is speaking at the IoT Tech Expo North America, on 20-21 October. Find out more about the connected industry track here. in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their IoT use-cases? Attend the IoT Tech Expo World Series events with upcoming shows in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam to learn more.

The show is co-located with the AI & Big Data Expo, Cyber Security & Cloud Expo and Blockchain Expo so you can explore the entire ecosystem in one place.

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