From LTE-connected autonomous tractors to private 5G networks in factories to supporting rural broadband financing, agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere is a prime example of a company using advanced cellular technology. But cellular communication is only part of John Deere’s much bigger technology picture.
Three years ago, the company created the Startup Collaborator program, an annual program the company describes as a way to “test innovative technology with customers and dealers without a more formal business relationship.”
Although Deere has already selected its class of 2022 startups, the company announced plans to add another one this fall, and 10 startups got a chance to compete for a spot. The competition was held in Austin, Texas, at the Deere Technology Innovation Center. The heavy equipment manufacturer partnered with the Austin Technology Incubator, opened a new local office dedicated to technology, and purchased a farm about 30 miles north to test and demonstrate its work. The startup competition was part of a GroundBreakers event to celebrate the opening of the new office.
On Sept. 15, 10 selected startups presented three John Deere judges in front of a live audience from the University of Texas and the local business community. Participants included a firm using ammonia to generate clean energy, a developer of collaborative robots (cobots) that learn from each other, and two startups using drones to spray crops.
The winner is Albedo, which plans to launch 24 Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) satellites to capture high-resolution images of farms and crops. The 21-person startup says it won’t launch its first bird until 2024, but Deere is willing to wait.
Mark Fincham, head of the new business model at Deere, said he and other judges were looking for firms that would have a “strategic fit with Deere.” Deere has been working with satellites for more than 20 years through its Starfire network , which helps farmers use satellite-derived location data for precision farming.
VLEO is a new type of satellite. Science Direct defines VLEO as satellites that orbit less than 450 kilometers above the ground. (Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites can orbit up to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.) VLEOs will use lightweight electric motors to maintain their orbit despite the stronger gravitational pull at lower altitudes. They will be able to produce more accurate images than other satellites in higher orbits. They are also expected to create less “space debris” because their relatively low altitude will allow them to re-enter the atmosphere and disintegrate when their work is done.
In addition to VLEO startup Albedo, the judges at the GroundBreakers event recognized two other companies as runners-up: Susterco and Intelliculture. Susterco is a spectroscopy startup that uses cameras to measure carbon levels in soil. Intelliculture sells farmers a wireless device that they install on their tractor to track how the machine is running and what it’s doing. Intelliculture also provides cloud-based analytics, so farmers can get useful data about their fields and tractors that can be viewed in a mobile app.
During the event, Deere also unveiled two agtech startups that have become part of the company. In 2017, Deere bought Blue River Technology for $305 million. Blue River makes small robots that ride on tractors, recognize crops and spray with herbicides.
Deere acquired Bear Flag Robotics in 2021 for $250 million. Bear Flag Robotics, part of the Deere Startup Collaborator in 2019, helped Deere make its tractors more autonomous. The tractors can now operate on farms without a human in the cab, which means farmers can focus on control and planning and can plow, plant and fertilize 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, when conditions are right.