In January, the company announced that it was “finalizing its search for a satellite partner.”
From the soil to the sky, the agriculture industry has largely embraced digitalization. Agricultural companies have adopted technologies such as drones, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and automation to help farmers save time, money, and labor. Soon, satellites can be added to the list as well. John Deere, which has previously introduced technologies such as unmanned tractors, crop-spraying drones, and weed detection sprayers, stated in January that it was “finalizing a satellite partner” to create geospatial maps to analyze crop growth and provide connectivity to remote and rural farmers.
The drive to connect farmers is driven by John Deere’s desire to digitize its revenue streams. In 2020, the company set a goal of getting 10% of its revenue from software subscription fees by 2030. Currently, the company offers free connectivity services to its customers through its JDLink platform.
Johnny Spendlove, Senior Communications Product Manager at John Deere, said in an email that the company is “still working out the details of what SatCom-enabled connectivity will look like.”
As farm equipment becomes smarter, equipped with sensors and augmented with artificial intelligence, connectivity will become increasingly important to agriculture operations, according to Scott Duncan, Partner and Head of Agribusiness for the Americas at Bain & Company. McKinsey estimates that in 2020, only 25% of U.S. farms were using connected equipment or devices, and that was before telecom companies shut down many of the networks running such equipment in late 2022.
“Deere is looking for a way to provide real-time connectivity, maximizing return on investment for the manufacturer by the end of the year,” Duncan said. “Having connectivity gives you the best chance to make the best choices and maximize each metric to achieve a good profit.”
Satellite Broadband for Crop Computerization
Satellite broadband can be crucial for the future of agriculture business as the cost of building traditional broadband infrastructure in rural areas can be prohibitive.
John Deere is not the only company trying to address this issue. Microsoft’s platform, FarmVibes.Connect, aims to provide connectivity to remote and rural areas “through empty TV spaces,” or the black and white snowy static that appears between channels.
Spendlove stated that connectivity enables technologies such as field sharing, remote display access, autonomy, faster machine learning, and wireless data transfer.
In September 2022, John Deere released a Request for Proposal (RFP) for satellite technology and executives met with 60 representatives from various satellite providers at a test farm in Iowa. However, Spendlove declined to name any satellite vendors that have submitted RFP offerings or the number received. The criteria for a satellite partner include performance, certain bandwidth and latency thresholds, a “satellite terminal of increased robustness,” and “cost for both terminal and data.”
According to Ernie Chang, Managing Director of FTI Consulting, while satellite constellations are not built exclusively for the agriculture industry, agriculture is an important use case for this technology. With satellite communications,
“you can have a higher degree of potential automation when you take people out of the loop, and machines can be monitored, controlled, and controlled remotely in remote areas where you previously needed additional infrastructure,” he said.
Spendlove declined to disclose the amount John Deere is investing in the program, but stated that the company is “very serious” about it and “willing to make a substantial investment.” Given the timing of the project, a satellite partner would need to have their constellation already built or under construction.
“Given the timing of the project, Deere’s partner will need to have their constellation already built or under construction,” ” He added that the timeline for the satellite partnership is to “go to market by the end of 2024.”Spendlove said, noting that the company is “ready to go today.
Spendlove believes that the future of agriculture will be revolutionized by data, machine learning, artificial intelligence.
“When you just have tractor power, and you get bigger tractors, and you have tractors with more power, and things like that, you start running into limitations,” he said. “At some point, there’s not much you can do with muscle. You have to start thinking about what you can do with the brain of the machine. And that brain requires connection.” – asked Spendlove