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 is focused on developing self-driving systems for tractors and other automated farming solutions.
gentlemen. Pell shared a lot of interesting things with us, including details about how the self-driving system works, the types of laws and regulations the company has to contend with, and how much he cares about the game.
You can read a brief overview of the interview below, or view the entirety in the video above.
Read next: CES 2023 — the best of the world’s biggest tech show
Q: Most of our audience are not very 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 started out as a Silicon Valley startup about 10 years ago. We were an independent company for the first five years or so, but then we joined forces with John Deere and became a subsidiary.
Blue River Technology’s original mission was to make rivers blue again. We hope to achieve this by using cameras and technology on agricultural sprayers to make sure they only spray weeds and not crops. This is different from how agricultural sprayers currently work, as they go across the field and spray the entire field.
We want to make the whole process better for the environment.
By using computer vision machine learning and robotics, we think there is a way to save farmers money on chemicals and make the whole process better for the environment. Because if you have too much agricultural runoff, it destroys our rivers.
When we joined forces with John Deere, we also launched a new product that was not originally planned, which was an autonomous driving system for tractors.
Q: Autopilot is something we would like to hear more about. It’s fully autonomous, which means it doesn’t need a driver/operator at all — not even a teleoperator?
A: Generally speaking, the answer is yes. A farmer brings a machine into the field and they effectively set it and forget it. So they turn it on and the tractor will keep working for 12 hours while the farmer can go do other things.
If the autonomous system detects something in its path, it will stop, at which point the farmer can restart it if the obstacle is a false positive. This is great because farmers don’t need to sit in a tractor for 12 hours and can instead focus on the many other tasks they have to deal with.
Q: Will Blue River Technology or John Deere have to deal with any laws and regulations regarding autonomous driving systems?
A: A little bit in California, but most of our machines don’t operate in that state. In most of the United States, we’re not really bound by any regulatory framework because our machines are run on private property. They do not take public roads.
The way we set them up is to have a field boundary and then drive the machine within those boundaries to get very accurate GPS data, which ensures the machine will stay where it needs to be.
But even though we are not within any regulatory framework, we still want to provide our customers with safe and efficient products.
Q: You focus on the environment and growing food at Blue River Technology and John Deere.Do you also work in any other industries such as lawnmowers using AI or Can consumers at home use something similar?
A: Without going into too much detail, I will say that John Deere makes a lot of products, including lawn mowers, construction equipment, and tractors, all of which are ripe for automation and autonomy.
Our advantage is that we don’t have to think about all the chaos on the open road.
Our advantage is that these environments are homogeneous enough that we can build a very reliable vision system because we don’t have to account for all the chaos that’s going on on the open road. In all of these applications, the machine can stop for anything, but on the open road you have to be perfect. That means you can’t fail to detect something, and you also can’t detect a fake and stop the vehicle, as that could cause an accident.
Q: Do you build the software you use from scratch or do you source it from somewhere? Also, has anyone contacted you about licensing or purchasing the software?
A: The short answer is we build our own software. Long story short, yes we do rely on 3rd party vendors and open source libraries for some things, but the core of our software is all built in-house.
On the licensing side, we’ve been approached about our software, but that’s generally not a John Deere business model. In this sense, we are more like Apple than Android. I wouldn’t say we’ll never do this, but it’s definitely not our focus.
Q: Who are your competitors? Did you see anything from them that kept you up at night?
A: Let’s be honest – we’re just focused on running our playground. There will always be competition. There will always be startups. But what we have is a brand that everyone trusts, and a channel that supports it and allows us to get our hard work out into the world.
We can build this system as a company. If you get into the details of making an automatic machine, making it really safe and capable, requires you to talk to the guy who made the transmission, talk to the guy who built the tractor and the firmware glitches, and it requires those guys to be in the same room. So I’m mostly looking at the settings.
There are some OEMs who are trying to do it themselves. I think they need a talent pool outside of traditional strongholds, and if they don’t have one, I’m not so worried about them.
This is just a quick overview of our conversation with Blue River Technology’s Willy Pell. If you want to learn more, check out the video at the top of the page.