James Kotecki (00:01): 

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This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki. CES 2024 is January 9th through 12th in Las Vegas, and we are giving you an exclusive look at the future with interviews to get you ready for the world's most powerful tech event. So how do you feed a growing population on a changing planet? An important question may be the most important question. Well, John Deere has an answer, and it includes robotics and AI. The company is driving towards the future with tractors that can drive themselves. So joining me now for an update on the future of farming is Crystal Wells, the manager for Tech Stack Architecture in John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group. Her team deals with data, digital electrical systems, embedded precision tech and vehicle technologies. Crystal, welcome to the show. 

Crystal Wells (01:38): 

So glad to be here. Thanks for having me. 

James Kotecki (01:41): 

What a cool job. What a cool title you have. This is really exciting to have you on the show, and it seems like there's so many interesting technical aspects to what you do. Of all those things I just mentioned, do you have a favorite kind of specific angle or aspect? 

Crystal Wells (01:57): 

Oh gosh, that's like asking me to pick my favorite child. No, I mean, I think that all of them are just really part of this total solution to bring technology to the farm. So different days, data is one of my favorite right at the moment, but there's a ton of places that I feel like are really cool new places to dig into. 

James Kotecki (02:17): 

I want to start by grounding and no pun intended, but literally grounding listeners and viewers of this show on what it actually means to be working on a farm to be a farmer today. I think folks that work in tech, folks that come to CES, may not have that experience. It's obviously crucial to everyone's wellbeing that we have farmers out there doing this work. But can you just snapshot for folks what's it like to be a farmer here today? 

Crystal Wells (02:44): 

Farmers today face so many different challenges. So just to give you a glimpse into what a farmer might be thinking about, the first thing he's probably thinking about is, hey, how can I get more food to the table? Ultimately, that's what farmers are doing. Doing right, is help feeding the world. And we all know that there's a growing population of mouths to feed. And so that's probably the first thing that they're working to solve. And the second thing they have to wake up every day and contend with is the weather. And probably in a way that's a little bit different than we do at day-to-day because for them weather is a huge obstacle in terms of are they getting enough rain? Is it time to harvest the crop? Has it not been warm enough? All of those variations and extreme variability in terms of the weather. As well as things like, hey, what is the variability in their land and their soil conditions? 


So they're having to contend with a number of varied dynamic variables that they have to work through each and every day. And then the final thing that they're trying to work through is labor. So in all sorts of industries, as we know, labor has been a real issue, that is no different in the farming industry. In fact, today there's just about 2% of the United States population that is in the agricultural industry in farming. And of that population, the average age is 55 years and farmers work 12 to 18 hours a day. And so having that necessary labor and being able to continue to do it's not sustainable unless we get to some real technology solutions here. So those are the kinds of things that farmers wake up to every single day and have to think about. 

James Kotecki (04:21): 

And we talk about weather, you're talking about a lot of pieces of data when you're talking about labor, you can look at things like robotics and automation. So it all fits together. It's so clear to me why John Deere has been such a part of CES. Your CEO gave the keynote address in 2023, I believe John Deere has been a part of CES since 2019, and you're talking about needing technical solutions for these problems. And that's all quite clear. And yet I always get the sense that some people out there are like, huh, John Deere. What's a tractor company doing? Or, what's a farming company doing at a tech show? Do you still get that reaction despite all the technological milestones that you've demonstrated at a place like CES? 

Crystal Wells (05:06): 

I think there'll always be people out there that may not know that John Deere and our customers are huge technology folks. If I think about history and where farming came from, the original John Deere himself created the steel plow and that changed the way farming happened. And then technology was reinvented when we changed from horses to an engine, and we had the tractor, and that was an evolution. So I think if you really take a minute and look back through the history of farming, you'll see that John Deere has always been innovative in trying to bring farmer solutions, and farmers have always been innovators in adopting them in order to make them more productive. So hopefully, we'll get to a point where people aren't as surprised, but I think it's really just the same answer that we've been doing for years and years, which is technology is going to make us stronger. 

James Kotecki (05:57): 

And not just the history of farming, but if you read those sweeping, grandiose history of humanity books, the first chapter or the first section is usually about, okay, we go from hunting and gathering to farming, and then we actually improve the way that we farm. And yes, so much of our ability to succeed as humans on this planet comes down to our food systems. And now, it's so cool that John Deere is looking at robotics and AI as the next generations of technologies to further improve that and feed, as you say, a growing population. So talk to us about CES 2024. What are some of the ways that these technologies are going to show up for John Deere at CES? 

Crystal Wells (06:38): 

So you named two really big technologies that John Deere spends a lot of time developing that are kind of in our arsenal. So artificial intelligence, we use quite a bit of that on the farm in order to help get the most productivity out of a machine. Here's an example for you. Let's imagine we have a cotton machine who's really gathering up the cotton in the field in order to make the clothes that you and I get to wear every single day. Well, if we want to do the best job possible, AI can help us with sensors on that machine to be able to adjust machine settings to be able to do that better than before. And then you talk about the robotics piece of it, and that's also a huge help as we go back to that labor issue. So you think about that same machine, which is basically a factory on wheels getting cotton out of that field. 


One of the most tedious parts of that job is being able to drive those really long straight lines often in the fields, and that could be quite cumbersome for our growers. And so having the ability with technology to have those machines literally steer themselves with a product that we call autotrack is super helpful to that. So we're going to continue to build AI and robotic solutions, and what we love to do is show those off at CES, and we love it because they're real pieces of technology. They absolutely have purpose. So you're going to see AI, you're going to see robotics, and you're going to see them all have real purpose that we're using today to get really food, fuel, fiber, and infrastructure out there into the world. 

James Kotecki (08:06): 

I think if you were to go back to the 60s or 70s or whenever they were making The Jetsons for the first time and talk about robotics and farming, I'm sure somebody would've thought of or drawn some kind of humanoid robot out there like plucking turnips in a field. But what strikes me about some of the solutions that you're talking about is if you were just to walk up to a field and look out in the field and see what was actually going on out there, and you might not know that there was a person in the cab or not, or if the person was actually steering the tractor or not, you might not see the AI kind of under the hood that's adjusting those settings. So from an optics perspective, does it kind of seem like the farming that maybe we're all used to, but so much of the innovation is actually happening under the hood? 

Crystal Wells (08:54): 

Yes, you're exactly right. So if you take, for example, one of our planters or our sprayers, they can have over 100 controllers on those machines that are all acting in concert to be able to read the surroundings and make adjustments to that machine. So you're absolutely right that a lot of what people see on the outside isn't nearly the same as what's happening on the ground to the machine in order to get that crop in the most productive way pulled off the field. 

James Kotecki (09:23): 

Yeah, and I think this may be why people don't necessarily realize the amount of technology that's actually going into farming today, to the extent that some people don't realize it. But I am curious of the pervasiveness of this because John Deere, obviously from what you've said so far and from what I know about the company, is so interested in putting these technologies to practical use and not just demonstrating technology for technology's sake. I believe that was a quote from your CEO or something along those lines that I've seen, maybe even at CES. But that begs the question though of how pervasive some of these cutting edge technologies actually are in the field today. You mentioned to me before we started recording that you're coming to us from Iowa. If I drive around Iowa and I see some John Deere equipment in the cornfields of Iowa, how much technology can I assume is actually in that tractor, or how much has that robotics and AI actually pervasive across the user base today? 

Crystal Wells (10:22): 

Here's a stat that still blows me away. If we look in John Deere, our operation center, where we're able to see acres of how much our farmers are using precision technology to be able to see what they've done on that land, there are 330 million acres farmed with some form of precision technology. So it's a lot more pervasive than you might originally assume. And a lot of that is driven by the fact that we are just very carefully listening to our customers. What are our growers saying are the big challenges that we have today? So they're using precision technology for labor shortages. They've told us that, which is why we've worked to create that autonomous tillage machine that we showed last year. We're able to start building a place where farmers can take that machine to the field, let it do its operations, so that the grower can spend time with its family or focus on other tasks that might need to be happening. And honestly, I feel like that's just the start. 


We see pervasive technology today, but as we continue to build out technology like autonomous solutions throughout the production cycle, which is our ambition, I think that that is just going to continue to grow because it solves the challenges that our customers have today. 

James Kotecki (11:36): 

You talked about listening very carefully to customers. You also talked about, I think the stat you said was that the average farmer in America is 55, right? Something like that. So someone who's getting a little on in years, and that's not the generation that you typically think of as the most tech-savvy, TikTok folks. Again, I'm just kind of trying to use broad stereotypes, so we can bust them apart here. But what I'm getting at, is it a specific challenge for John Deere to design technologies and AI and systems in a way that still work within the human workflow of what folks have been used to before this technology rolled out? And then how do you think about rolling that out to an older audience who clearly did not grow up on a farm with all this kind of computerized and automated technology? 

Crystal Wells (12:22): 

Yeah. Well, first I'd say I'd go back to farmers are some of the most innovative tech forward people that we have out there. And so I think that's part of it. There certainly is an element of everything we design. We work very closely with our growers to understand, hey, how can we mimic things that they're using in their everyday life, right? So when I, for example, talk about operations center that's in a web format, that's in a mobile format, and I think no matter what age you are today, most people are pretty good at being able to pull up their phone and be able to see that. And that's the kind of capability we're giving to our customers is they can pull up their phone and take a look and say, hey, let me just scroll through here and figure out which of my machines might need fuel right now, which ones need proactive maintenance on that? So all of that connectivity and all of that capability is really in a lot of the same ways that you're used to using technology in your other life. They're just using it for their business. 

James Kotecki (13:16): 

Do you see the increase in this kind of user-friendly tech forward approach as potentially being a way to draw younger people into the profession, people who maybe wouldn't have considered farming before, but if they can understand the scope of the challenge, and they can understand the level of technology might actually become more interested in it? 

Crystal Wells (13:42): 

I personally didn't grow up on a farm, and I had no idea the level of technology that went into it. So my degree was in electrical engineering. And so as I started at John Deere, I probably like many other people thought, well, what would I do at a company like John Deere, right? Isn't that a purely mechanical type of company? But as you really get into it and understand, hey, what are the challenges that we're facing, and how cool can agriculture be in making a positive impact? It's just one of the coolest mission statements around, honestly. And to be able to take a challenge like food, fuel and fiber for the entire world and then partner that with, hey, how can we use really super cool tech to solve that challenge? I mean, if you're interested in those spaces, I don't know how you stay away from that. 

James Kotecki (14:29): 

Absolutely. And related to that, are there things that you recommend folks who want to go into this field or the fields literally in terms of just going into agriculture? Are there things you recommend folks actually study in high school and college to prepare for the realities of what it actually means to be on a farm today? 

Crystal Wells (14:50): 

Yeah, I think that farmers have a lot of different challenges to contend with. They certainly have to think about the economy. They have to think about the business aspect of what they're doing, what decisions they make. I certainly couldn't tell you exactly what our farmers need to today because that is where they shine and where we need them to continue to focus. But the agricultural industry as a whole, there are a lot of different opportunities. You could study agronomy, you could study business, but you could also study electrical or software engineering or agricultural engineering because all of those diverse skills are really needed to solve those big challenges. 

James Kotecki (15:27): 

I want to dive into the technology a little bit more. You mentioned your operation center being available on mobile devices, and we know that everyone's carrying a mobile device in their pocket and that has many different functions potentially as a sensor on a farm. We know that satellites are going overhead and taking aerial imagery, and space-based agriculture is a real and important contributor to the future of food. So then how do you think about the way that John Deere equipment sits within this overall kind of framework of multiple sensors, multiple pieces of data coming in, how does it use that data, and then how does it contribute to that data? Do you see it as this kind of web or an overall network? 

Crystal Wells (16:07): 

Yeah, absolutely. I think that if you look at John Deere and what we've done, we have 500,000 machines connected today, and we have ambitions to connect 1.5 million machines. And we're not just doing that once again because it's cool. It has a ton of really important purpose. And so we're able to take some things that are happening on the machine with sensors or data that we're collecting on that machine and be able to share it with, like you said, either a cellular connection or the satellite connections that we're working on in the future to be able to have that connectivity to be able to make farming even more productive. So let me give you a quick example of that. Imagine you've got two combines in the field. So if you're not familiar with combines, right, you've got basically a factory on wheels that is rolling through the field trying to harvest, say corn through it, and you've got another combine somewhere else in the field that you can't see. 


We can use the sensors on the machine to see how much grain is in that green tank on those machines exactly where in the machine it is, where in the fields has already been harvested, and that could be passed back and forth with that connectivity and be able to be shared so that in the cab of each of those machines on wheels that we're able to know, hey, this is how much time it's going to take me to finish. This is where the grain truck needs to go next. This is how much I have left before I run into the other guy who's working in this field with me. And so all of that works in concert together when you've got the right sensors, the right logic, and the right connectivity to make that job so much easier than it would be otherwise. 

James Kotecki (17:41): 

And just so we're picturing this properly, even though that combine or that whatever the device or the vehicle is maybe running at least partially autonomously, does it still make sense for there to be a person in the cab? And can you explain a little bit more about if the answer is yes, why the answer is yes? 

Crystal Wells (18:01): 

Our ambitions at John Deere is to continue to make things more and more autonomous, but there's a lot of different work for each individual aspect of a machine that you have to figure out how to solve that piece. And so if I use that combine example, one of the things that machine already does today as an automated task, think of that robotics piece again, is it's able to sense the grain that's coming in and make slight adjustments to the settings on the machine to be able to make sure that what is making it up to the grain tank is the cleanest possible grain that customer, that grower could make happen out of it. But there's still a lot of other pieces that we need to finish automating to get to that full job. And so those are the pieces we're working on is, hey, how do you make sure that the quality of job outside of that is still happening? How do you signal headlands and total path planning pieces? 


So lots of other individual pieces of the total picture to get a machine to be fully autonomous. I mean, really what you're trying to do is make a factory on wheels fully autonomous. And so we are after that, it's just going to happen piece by piece. 

James Kotecki (19:12): 

And how much does connectivity play into this, or I guess what I'm really asking is how much connectivity is really available to folks in the field? I don't know if you have a number or a data point for this offhand, but obviously if I'm deep in the field in a rural area, maybe 5G is not available to me, maybe there's not a wifi connection available to me. So when we talk about connected devices, what's the reality of how connected they actually are or need to be? Are we talking about devices that kind of connect and sync up their data once they get back to a home base? What's the current situation with that? 

Crystal Wells (19:44): 

Connectivity is absolutely vital to what our customers need to do in the field, especially when we talk about more of those precision tech solutions or autonomy solutions. And so while a good number of our farmers do have that connectivity, we do have some places where we need to plan for intermittent connectivity issues. And so many times that's exactly what we need to do is say, hey, if in this portion of the field they lose connectivity, and we need to store that data, so that once they get back to the barn that they're going to store that machine in, maybe that's when it connects and is able to send up the data that they have. But that's also why, as I just briefly mentioned before, we're interested in that satellite communications. So we did that request for proposals about a year ago now, and we're still working on that and hope to have a solution in the field sometime in 2024, because it'll help close some of that gap for growers that really need connectivity and don't have that accessibility today. 

James Kotecki (20:44): 

It sounds like some conversations that you might have with other folks who go to CES, where it's all about integrating different kinds of technologies together and bringing people together to have these kinds of collaborative conversations. Speaking of just kind of scope and numbers, do you have a sense of the scope of the amount of data that you collect? I mean, I don't even know if it really makes sense to define that as far as one huge block. You're going to give me some ton of tremendous number, but I imagine that the data that you're collecting and the types of data that you're collecting is just astronomical and growing all the time. 

Crystal Wells (21:16): 

When we think about data, what we're actually thinking about are our insights, and right back to what our growers need to know in order to make their job more efficient or more sustainable? So, for example, I talked a little bit about the field progress, but our farmers are also interested in what are the work totals? How much were they able to harvest in that particular field? And they had parts of the field that maybe need a different plan for the following year to have an even better growth plan for what they were able to do. And so the day that we're collecting is really focused on being able to, either in the moment or after the season, be able to show the customer what it is. So along with that, what we do is we give our customers the ability to share their data. So we're able to connect to over 250 connected software companies, because really no farmer farms alone, they need the help of agronomists and other expert partners to make really good business decisions. 


And so the data that we collect is all in service of being able to make those connections for insights he needs personally or to share it with his trusted partners to be able to do more with it, either on the spot or in the future. 

James Kotecki (22:32): 

You mentioned automating the entire vehicle or the entire factory on wheels, but given all this data, given where the technology is right now, a bit of a blue sky question, but what's a wow moment that you're looking forward to being able to give to a customer? What's the milestone for you that maybe is just out of reach, but it's kind of glittering on the horizon, and you're maybe waiting for a few more technical pieces to fall into place, and you really hope that sometime in the near future you'll be able to do? 

Crystal Wells (22:59): 

Yeah, I'm going to give you two answers, two ways I like to think about this. So one of them is these are pieces of information about any grower's scenario, and each one is really, really unique. And so right now a farmer has what? At most, 40 chances in his lifetime to get the most productivity in a super sustainable way to make that all happen. But what if as we collect more and more data specific to his scenario and his land and his soil condition, we're able to change that 40 into infinite, where he could really start garnering insights out of what he's looking at to be able to figure it out in his operation center account and then go apply that in the real world. So I'm really excited about that piece of it, of really unlocking things that he hasn't had the opportunity to do before just because he has limited tries. 


The second thing I'm super interested in is just the fidelity of the data. We used to think about things on the field level and the acre level, we're getting down by the seed, by seed, plant by plant level, so that really every single plant has the best opportunity to grow and to provide that food supply that we're looking for. And so that drawing out of the fidelity of data and what we'll be able to do to maximize the productivity and sustainability of what we go do is just very exciting to me. 

James Kotecki (24:25): 

It is so purpose-driven. You can feel that, and I know that John Deere has this phrase, tech with a purpose. I feel like you have shared the purpose with us, which is feeding the world and making farmers' lives easier and more productive while they do it. But is there anything else that you want to say about the way that John Deere thinks about the purpose of all of this? 

Crystal Wells (24:47): 

As I think about what we're trying to do, like you said, fitting the world is a big part of it, but with our other pieces, I talked about our cotton machine, we're also worried about how do we clothe the world. We have a construction business, so we are working on, hey, what's necessary for infrastructure, like roads or buildings that might need to be created? So all of that is in the purpose of real tech and why that matters so much to us is we have this intersection of, hey, how do we do all of that but do it in a sustainable way? And that's the other half of what we're trying to do is, hey, products like our see and spray technology that is able to navigate in a field and apply herbicide to just a particular weeded as opposed to the entire field. I mean, that helps us grow the sustainability of these futures. And nobody cares about that more except maybe John Deere maybe in partnership with our customers, because ultimately that's what they have to hand down to their next generation is that land. 


And so I'm excited, and we're excited to be able to work into a space each and every day where we're able to match up technology for a real purpose, and also a real purpose that is sustainable moving forward. 

James Kotecki (25:58): 

When it comes to vehicle electrification, is that something John Deere's also working on? 

Crystal Wells (26:03): 

Here's what I think we have with electrification. Electrification is just one of the many ways that I think we're going to get to a more sustainable future. And so electrification is a huge part of what John Deere is focused on right now, and to be able to figure out what are the right applications where we can use electrification. On the flip side, I also think biodiesels are another way that we're going to be able to solve that challenge. And so it's another place where that technology is being applied to our machines, for sure. 

James Kotecki (26:30): 

And as we come to a close here, speaking about the next generation, I know that you're a big advocate for women in engineering bringing women into your profession. What does that look like for you generally? And at John Deere specifically, how do you think your industry is doing, and what are you working on there? 

Crystal Wells (26:47): 

What I do personally in this space is I often work to mentor women, especially more junior women that are coming into the tech space about here's some of the tips that I think help you succeed in that dynamic environment, and the things that we need to go do. And one of the reasons I'm so passionate about it is because as we talked about, this is one of the coolest spaces out there if you want to work in tech, applying that into the agricultural space or the construction space, I mean, what could be a more meaningful mission? It's also one of the toughest challenges, though. And so if we don't have a really diverse set of minds working on those, I'm not sure we can get as far as we want to be. So for me, doing those mentoring activities or reaching out to diverse talent and trying to pull them into that space is all about finding the best possible talent to get us to solve those really unique fun challenges that we have here. 

James Kotecki (27:38): 

Well, Crystal Wells, any final thoughts for us as we head towards CES 2024? 

Crystal Wells (27:43): 

Well, I think, John Deere, we're once again, very excited to be part of CES, and I'm just hoping that throughout today we were able to share with folks who may not have been as aware how the real purpose and the real technology all comes together for a more sustainable, productive future. 

James Kotecki (28:00): 

Well, thank you for bringing it all together for us. Crystal Wells of John Deere really appreciate you being on the show today. 

Crystal Wells (28:07): 

You bet. Thanks for having me. 

James Kotecki (28:09): 

And that's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about, so please subscribe to this podcast and you won't miss a moment. And you can get even more CES and prepare for Las Vegas at ces.tech. That's C-E-S dot T-E-C-H. Our show is produced by Nicole Vidovich and Mason Manuel, recorded by Andrew Lin and edited by Third Spoon. I'm James Kotecki, talking Tech on CES Tech Talk.