Blue river system acquired by John Deere Blue River
PRECISE SPRAYING: This image shows a field area where the See and Spray System has passed. The blue-dye in the spray shows that the unit just applied product to areas where there are weeds. The system has been tested in vegetable crops in California; and cotton in Arkansas.

John Deere makes a machine learning buy

Company acquires innovative startup that already has focused spray tech for agriculture.

One area of technology advancement that's moving faster these days is machine learning. This is the ability for a machine to gather information and make new decisions. One ag-focused startup leading the way in that area is Blue River Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., firm that makes the See and Spray System. And now Blue River is being acquired by John Deere.

John Deere is acquiring Blue River to get access to machine learning technology, which will help the company advance other equipment for the future.

"With sensing technology, automation and control, we don't have deep learning capability," says John Teeple, director of advanced technology, John Deere. "Blue River has a labeled image database of plants and weeds and they've been working on cotton for the last few years."

Teeple, who spoke with Farm Progress about the purchase, notes that the Blue River system brings together a great deal of computing power into a single system that not only sprays precisely but essentially checks its work on the way by and autocorrects to be even more precise. That's the kind of technology John Deere plans to bring to other products in the lineup in the future.

Essentially, the Blue River See and Spray system - can identify weeds in a growing crop, and it does more than just see weeds out of the row. The system can distinguish the weed in the row as well. The system will allow producers to cut herbicide use dramatically - to as little as 5 to 6% of what is used today on a spray pass.

In a press statement, Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River, remarked that the company is "using computer vision, robotics and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify and make management decisions about every single plant in the field."

This level of precision is growing for the industry as lower cost sensor technology becomes available. And once mated to machine learning systems that can take in the information to make decisions, more precision tools are possible.

Looking ahead

Teeple talked about how this kind of machine learning may be applied to future farm equipment using the S700 Series combine as an example. That machine is already using a vision system to improve combine setup, but that's just the beginning. "As you think about the S700 series combine, there are sensors on that machine from engine sensors to the perception camera sensor for grain damage, and more throughout the machine. These are providing unbelievable inputs that are not being optimized currently," Teeple says.

With technology from Blue River, the company can more rapidly move toward ways to rethink how machinery works. For example, the combine could see the crop ahead and change settings for even more precise harvest before that material enters the feeder house. It's a new way of thinking about equipment.

Deere expects the Sunnyvale company to continue operating as it is, keeping its location and its entrepreneurial workforce. Teeple notes that usually when you acquire a company you acquire assets, perhaps a distribution system and brands. In this case, the acquisition is technology and the people surrounding that tech. "This is really different for us, but we're going into this with our eyes wide open. And we know for us to be successful we have to preserve the unique culture and autonomy and spirit of innovation at Blue River," Teeple said.

Navcom, a company acquired in 1999, has helped Deere build its GPS and AutoTrac systems, but Navcom also markets to others in industry as a standalone company. Navcom reports to Teeple, and he acknowledges the work ahead with Blue River.

The Deere investment in Blue River is $305 million to fully acquire the company. The 60-person firm will remain in Sunnyvale and remain an independent firm to continue its "rapid growth and innovation with the same entrepreneurial spirit that has led to its success," according to the company. The transaction is expected to close in September.

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