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What does Deere’s $250 million acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics mean for agriculture?

John Deere’s recent acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics is the next step in the company’s precision ag technology journey. The move, John Marshall believes, will not only enhance Deere’s position in the autonomous space, but continue to set the company apart.

“It also will further Deere’s presence in Silicon Valley, showing that it is a major player in technology,” says Marshall, IntelliFarm Director at Wade, Incorporated.

For over 100 years Wade Incorporated has been servicing the equipment needs of farmers in the Mississippi Delta and beyond. Through its IntelliFarm team, the dealership ensures its customers operate confidently with the latest technology.

“Labor is in short supply, and this news couldn’t come at a better time,” Marshall says. “I see the acquisition as a huge step forward.” 

The lack of skilled labor in agriculture is real and impactful, says Dan Liebfried. “Deere understands the challenges its customers face when it comes to labor and the impact of not having labor available to execute jobs in the field when they need to be done in the narrow windows of opportunity agriculture presents to producers each and every day,” says the director of automation & autonomy, Intelligent Solutions Group, John Deere. “This is not only a problem of today, but it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find labor going forward. Solutions like autonomous technology and our relationship with Bear Flag Robotics will help to solve those challenges for our customers.”

The challenge of automation in farming is massive because it’s not just about going from point A to point B, says Aubrey Donnellan, co-founder and chief operating officer at Bear Flag Robotics. “It’s automating the job and understanding all the failures that can occur in these environments to ultimately give the grower more strategic ways to deploy his resources and run more hours in the day.”

Bear Flag Robotics, which is based in the East Bay of San Francisco, was started by Donnellan and Igino Cafiero four years ago. The company builds autonomous technology for farm tractors – the hardware, sensors, actuators, and software that go on top of the machine to give it situational awareness. The technology not only gives the machine the ability to navigate through rugged, changing environments, but it allows the machine to perform a job effectively and really mimic and, hopefully, do better than a human can in the cab. 

Today, Bear Flag has a limited market reach with a handful of customers of varying sizes. It is focused on delivering autonomous tillage, but it plans to branch out over time into other tasks. 

Liebfried and Donnellan share how the two companies came together and their plan for autonomous technology going forward.

Q: What are some of the deciding factors Deere has when making an investment like this?

DL: Deere made a fundamental shift as an organization a little over a year ago and rolled out a smart industrial strategy focused on production systems, the technology stack that adds value to those production systems, and managing the life cycle of a customer’s operation to improve the ownership cycle of his equipment.

Then we asked, “How do we look at the customer problems today and into the future and what are some of their biggest challenges?” The availability of skilled labor has been a growing problem, and it’s not expected to get any better in the future.

We’ve talked openly about our strategy of automation and autonomy. We believe we have significant momentum, and we continue to make significant investments in the automation space. As Aubrey noted, it’s not just about going from point A to point B. It’s about ensuring the job itself is done to the highest level of quality. We believe we’ve got enough critical mass in that space and value to offer to take this big step into autonomy. 

When we started to look at what things could accelerate our journey to deliver value to our customers, the ability to retrofit was a big factor. The second was in-market learning and in-market experience in a commercial way. Last was making sure that whatever company we considered fit our culture and overall focus of adding value to growers. Ultimately, that led us to Bear Flag Robotics. They have a retrofit solution; it’s in-market, and not only did their company culture match ours, but their focus on safety principles was a critical factor in making this decision.

Q: Bear Flag Robotics was one of the first start-ups to participate in Deere’s Startup Collaborator. Tell us about that experience in this invitation-only program.

AD: What better opportunity than to learn from the people at Deere? We learned so much throughout the whole process. The company opened its doors across its entire organization to help teach us. For example, we met for hours with Deere’s tillage team, people who spend every day working on the betterment of tillage implements, so we could improve our product and do tillage better autonomously.

That experience was really the impetus to a very good relationship we’ve maintained over the last few years.

Q: Is the Collaborator going to be the way Deere looks at acquiring other companies?

DL: I don’t think you should read into it that this is the pattern, and this is the only way. The collaborator is more about helping start-ups than it is about developing a pipeline of acquisitions over time. Our goal is to provide the start-up community with access to resources, mentoring, and customers via the channel to get their idea in front of real customers. Through that process, it gives us insights into how they’re thinking about problems that could teach us different ways as a company to think about problems. 

Q: When are we mostly likely to see the first product from the acquisition?

DL: It’s already in market with a limited set of customers. We’re going to work together over the next few months to lay out our roadmap. During that time frame, it’s critical we continue to support current Bear Flag customers with the same excellent experience Bear Flag has been providing over the last few years.

Q: Who are some of the customers Bear Flag Robotics has worked with to date?

AD: We are working with a variety of growers – both in size and structure – in our near geography in California. We have operated in tree nut orchards, leafy greens, and specialty crops. In the early days of the company, we were doing orchard floor management, mowing, and spraying autonomously. Ultimately, we found a niche in tillage and that’s what we have been focusing on for the last few years. We’ve upgraded our machine to do this at a larger scale. Today, we provide autonomous tillage like disking, harrowing, and plowing. Tillage is just the start. We plan to move across all production steps and machine types/forms as well.

Q: Whats been the reaction of those customers once they’ve seen this technology at work?

AD: People can’t believe they’re seeing a fully autonomous machine in the field. One of the first things people ask is when can they get one. Growers are ready for this technology. As a cofounder, it’s hard not to be able to deliver our product as fast as people want it, but it has to be done right. 

We are in an exciting time where we are talking conversationally as a society about robotics and automation. It’s impacting us in so many ways. Even AI, we hear that term all over the place. It not only affects agriculture, but also the automotive and financial service spaces. We are getting accustomed to these advanced technologies that are impacting our lives and making them better. 

Q: How soon do we expect this technology to expand across the channel?

DL: As a company, we often talk about our competitive differentiators, and we firmly believe our dealer network is one of them. We’ve been making investments with them over the last 20 years in the precision ag space to increase their capabilities and their overall understanding of this space, to not only sell the solution, but to support it to the highest level. We’ll be exploring how the channel will interact with this solution over the next six to 12 months. We expect that it's going to be one of the linchpins to helping us scale this out. There is still a lot to learn yet, but the Deere channel will be an integral part of making this solution scale out to a broader market.

Q: What is Deere doing to prepare the dealer network for selling and servicing autonomous equipment? Will special training be needed to make sure the service staff can work on this technology?

DL: At every juncture across our precision ag journey, Deere has recognized that it’s not good enough to just have a great product. You also must have the great last-mile support of a channel partner to both sell and support the solution. We put training and development programs in place along the way to do that. 

In 2005, one of my roles was to focus on channel development as technology like AutoTrac was starting to increase in overall market penetration. We did the same thing in upskilling and building channel capabilities in 2011 as we started connecting machines to the cloud. More recently, we began the AI journey with See and Spray, building channel capability. As we move into the autonomy space in the next few years, I expect us to take a similar approach.

Q: This is a retrofit product. Are there plans to integrate that technology into the tractor or other equipment potentially in the future?

DL: The future is still yet to be determined. I believe having a retrofit product allows us to tap into a large install base, and it’s one of the big value drivers here – meeting customers where they are to give them the opportunity to experience autonomy in a meaningful way. 

Q: Over time, do you believe this technology will change the form of the traditional tractor?

DL: I believe we’re going to see the machine form change over time as the technology gets adopted, utilized, fit into the operation, and we get comfortable with it. However, jumping from here to there is quite a leap. Again, I don’t know the timing of when that will happen, but I definitely see machine form changes over the next five, 10, or 15 years.

AD: When you look at the long-term effects technology like this enables, you can start to think about alternative machine forms, as well as alternative fuel for machines. How do we pull in sustainability into maybe lots of smaller machines? When you’re not so constrained by labor and people driving these machines and making decisions about those machines, you really can be free to incorporate other value drivers like sustainability. I think we’re going to see very different machine forms in the future.

Q: How does the Bear Flag acquisition compliment or compare to the acquisition of Blue River?

DL: It’s a recognition that the space is rapidly evolving. While John Deere has a ton of capability in the precision technology space, the reality is we need a lot more to accelerate this area. 

With the acquisition of Blue River, we recognized what artificial intelligence could do to manage at the plant level. The acquisition of Bear Flag is a recognition that autonomy is another step in that journey of customer value. 

For me, it’s an exciting time to be a part of Deere. We’re not just building technology internally. We’re partnering with other companies through our collaborator, as well as acquiring companies to accelerate our journey.

Q: How will announcements like this attract the next generation to agriculture?

DL: People want to do something more impactful with their careers. We see an influx of that in recruits with very brilliant minds who want to come work on these problems. Of course, we always need more people to solve the problems facing agriculture. 

Autonomy is going to come much faster to agriculture than it is to on-road. That’s going to help us collectively attract talent to this space because they are not only hungry to work on interesting problems, but they also want to make sure those problems are solved and deployed to real-life customers in a timely way. We’re excited about that value proposition for future employees.

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