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Pickett, currently manager of the Advanced Engineering

group at John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group.

Moreover, it was expensive and required installing one or

more signal towers.

So in 2004, John Deere tried something different,

modifying its StarFire GPS receivers so they could tap into

NASA’s global network of ground stations and incorporate

JPL’s software — thanks to NavCom’s 2001 license

with JPL for its GPS-correction software and a contract

to receive data from JPL’s global network of reference


“John Deere based their system on our technology lock,

stock, and barrel,” Bar-Sever says. “We linked our systems

quite tightly.”

The JPL-linked system was accurate down to a few inches,

but more importantly, with this solution, John Deere

could finally offer self-driving agricultural equipment to

its customers worldwide.

Machines all over the world could “guide themselves with

a lot less overlap, and that meant a lot to our customers,”

Pickett says

Typically, when a tractor crisscrosses a field, the rows

overlap by about 10 percent, Pickett explains. This means

a significant portion of the field receives double the

necessary seed, fertilizer, and pesticide, and the job takes

longer than necessary.

“Self-guidance had a big impact on the cost of the product

farmers were producing, the amount, and often the quality”

Eliminating overlap also cuts down on fuel costs, wear and

tear on the machinery, and tractor operator time, since an

operator is required to monitor operating conditions and

avoid collisions. And higher accuracy also means more

reliable yield maps.

“Self-guidance had a big impact on the cost of the

product farmers were producing, the amount, and often

the quality,” Pickett says.

By 2015, he estimates, around a third of the crop acreage

in North America was being farmed using self-guidance

systems, as was up to half of the farmland in Europe and

South America and more than 90 percent in Australia.

All the while, John Deere was perfecting its own means of

precision guidance, and the company let the NASA license

expire in 2015, now relying on its own system.

But Pickett says the accuracy that originally came from

the company’s partnership with JPL not only gave rise

to significant improvements to John Deere’s guidance

technology but also served to help popularize the notion

of autonomous precision agriculture itself. “Guidance was

what drove it, and what drove guidance was accuracy,” he



For more than a decade, John Deere’s StarFire GPS receivers used NASA’s

global network of ground stations and the JPL software, which the compa-

ny licensed, to enable self-guided tractors. Among other benefits, accurate

GPS helps farmers manage their fields, for example enabling more accurate

observations and crop mapping.

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