At CES 2023, we had the pleasure of speaking with Willy Pell, Vice President of Autonomy and New Ventures at Blue River Technology. The company specializes in developing autonomous driving systems for tractors and other autonomous farming solutions.
Mr. Pell shared a lot of interesting things with us including details on how the private sector works, what kind of rules and regulations the company had to deal with, and how much they pay attention to the competition.
You can read a summary of the interview below or watch the whole thing in the video above.
Read the following: CES 2023 — Highlights from the world’s largest tech show
Q: Most of our audience is not familiar with Blue River Technology. Can you give us a brief overview of the company and explain how it relates to John Deere?
A: Blue River Technology was originally a Silicon Valley startup that was founded about 10 years ago. We were an independent company for five years or so, but then we merged with John Deere and became a subsidiary of John Deere.
Blue River Technology’s first mission was to make rivers green again. We wanted to achieve this by using cameras and technology in agricultural sprayers to ensure that they only spray weeds and not plants. This is different from the way agricultural sprayers currently work, as they travel across the field and spray everything.
We wanted to make the whole process more natural.
Using computer vision machine learning and robotics, we thought there was a way to save farmers money on chemicals and make the whole process better for the environment. Because if you have too much water for agriculture, it can damage our rivers.
When we partnered with John Deere, we also introduced a new product that was not planned at first, which is a self-driving system for tractors.
Q: The autonomous driving program is what we would like to hear more about. Is it fully autonomous, meaning it doesn’t need a driver/operator at all — not even a remote?
A: Generally, the answer is yes. The farmer takes the machine to the field, sets it up properly and forgets about it. So they turn it on, and the tractor will drive for 12 hours doing its job while the farmer can go do other things instead.
If the autonomous system sees something in its path, it will stop, at which point, the farmer can get it moving again if the obstacle is a mistake. This is good because the farmer does not need to sit on the tractor for 12 hours but can focus on many other tasks that he has to do.
Q: Did Blue River Technology or John Deere have to deal with any laws and regulations regarding autonomous driving systems?
A: A little in California, but most of our machines don’t work in that state. In most US states, we are essentially outside of any regulatory framework because our equipment operates on private property. They do not walk on public roads.
The way we set them up is to have a field boundary and then drive the machine within those boundaries to get the most accurate GPS data, which ensures the machine will stay where you need it to be.
But even though we are outside of any regulatory framework, we still want to deliver a safe and productive product to our customers.
Q: You are focused on nature and growing food at Blue River Technology and John Deere. Are you perhaps also pursuing any other industries such as lawn mowers using AI or the same thing that a consumer at home can use?
A: Without going too deep into the details, I can say that John Deere manufactures many products including lawn mowers, construction equipment, and tractors, all of which are automated and autonomous.
The good thing about us is that we don’t have to be responsible for all the chaos on the open road.
Our advantage is that these areas are similar enough to allow us to create more reliable vision systems, as we don’t have to account for all the chaos of the open road. In all these applications, the machine can stop if something happens, and on the open road, it should be perfect. That means you can’t fail to see something, and you can’t see something that isn’t true and stop the car because that could cause an accident.
Q: Did you build the software you use from scratch or did you get it from somewhere? Also, has anyone ever approached you about licensing or purchasing your software?
A: The short answer is that we build our own software. The long answer is, yes, we rely on third-party providers and open source libraries for some things, but the core of our software is all built in-house.
When it comes to licensing, we’ve been approached about our software, but that’s not typically John Deere’s business model. We’re more like Apple than Android in this sense. I’m not saying we’ll never do it, but it’s not our focus.
Q: What about your competitors? Have you seen anything in them that keeps you up at night?
A: I’ll be completely honest — we’re just focused on running our own playground. There will always be competition. There will always be startups. But what we do have is a brand that everyone trusts and a channel that supports and allows us to send our hard work out into the world.
We can build this system as one company. And as you get into the details of making an autonomous machine, which makes it really safe and very efficient, it requires you to talk to the person who made the machine, to talk to the person who broke the break in the tractor and the firmware, and it takes these people in the same room. So the thing I look for the most is the setup.
There are some OEMs that are trying to do it themselves. I think they’re going to need a talent pool outside of their traditional strongholds then, and if they don’t have that, I don’t really care about them.
This is just a quick recap of an interview we had with Willy Pell of Blue River Technology. If you want to learn more, watch the video at the top of the page.