Why even John Deere is getting into the space race

The company said in January that it was “finalizing a satellite partner.”
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: John Deere

· 4 min read

From soil to sky, the agricultural industry has largely embraced the digital revolution.

Ag companies have integrated drones, machine learning, AI, and automation into their everyday operations, all with the aim of helping farmers save time, money, and labor.

Soon, you may be able to add satellites to the list. John Deere, which has previously debuted tech like self-driving tractors, crop-spraying drones, and weed-identifying sprayers, said in January that it was “finalizing a satellite partner” in an effort to create geospatial maps to help analyze crop growth and bring connectivity to remote and rural farmers.

The push to connect farmers comes as Deere looks to digitize its revenue sources—last year, it set a goal to get 10% of its revenue from software subscription fees by 2030. The company currently offers its customers free connectivity services through its JDLink platform.

Jonny Spendlove, senior product manager of connectivity at John Deere, said in an email that it’s “still working through the details of what SatCom-enabled connectivity will look like.”

As farm equipment becomes smarter—decked out with sensors and layered with AI—connectivity will become more important to growing operations, Scott Duncan, partner and head of Americas Agribusiness practice at Bain & Company, told us. In 2020, McKinsey estimated that only 25% of American farms had any sort of connected equipment or devices in their operations, and that was before the telcos shut down many of the networks such equipment ran on in late 2022.

“[Deere’s] just looking for a way to get that real-time connectivity. And it’s all about maximizing ROI for the grower come end of year,” Duncan said. “Having this connectivity really gives you the best shot at making the best choices, just maxing out every one of these metrics that lets you get a good return.”

Computerizing the crops

Satellite broadband could be vital to the future of the agriculture business, as the cost of building traditional broadband infrastructure in rural areas can be prohibitive.

John Deere isn’t alone in its endeavor. Microsoft’s  platform, FarmVibes.Connect, aims to bring connectivity to remote and rural areas “via TV white spaces,” the black-and-white snow-like static that flickers between channels.

Spendlove told us connectivity enables technologies like in-field data sharing, remote display access, autonomy, faster machine learning, and wireless data transfers.

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Deere released an RFP for satellite tech in late September, but Spendlove declined to share the names of any satellite providers that have submitted RFP proposals or how many it has received so far. Deere execs met with “60 representatives from various satellite communications providers at a test farm” in Iowa in September 2022 to issue the RFP, per Fierce Wireless.

Spendlove said the criteria for a satellite partner include performance, certain bandwidth and latency thresholds, “a satellite terminal that is ruggedized,” and the “cost of both a terminal and the data.”

While satellite constellations are not necessarily being created exclusively for the agriculture industry, farming is a prominent use case for the tech, according to Ernie Chung, managing director at FTI Consulting.

With satellite connectivity, “you can have a higher degree of potential automation where you’re taking humans out of the loop, where machines can be controlled, monitored, [and] operated remotely within remote areas where you previously required additional infrastructure,” he told us.

Spendlove declined to say how much Deere would invest in the program but said the company was “very serious” about it and  “willing to make a substantial investment” in the initiative.

Given the project’s timeframe, Deere’s partner will need to have their constellation already built or in the process of being built, Spendlove said, noting the company is “ready to go today.” Spendlove told us the timeframe for a satellite partnership is to “have a solution in the market by the end of 2024.”

“Our belief is that the future of agriculture is really going to be revolutionized by data, machine learning, AI…When you just have the brawn of a tractor, and you get bigger tractors, and you get tractors that have higher horsepower and things like that, you start to run up against—or bump up against—some limitations,” Spendlove said.  “At some point, there’s only so much you can do with brawn. You need to start thinking about what can you do with the brain of the machine. And that brain requires connectivity.”

Update: This piece was updated 2/9/23 to clarify the source of a quote.

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