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
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,”
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.