Wednesday was mostly meeting-free and I dedicated my time to wandering around the Las Vegas Convention Center trying to find cool things or new ideas. I kicked off the day with John Deere (NYSE: DE) discussing the latest in ag tech. I’ve been talking to John Deere for about three years, so this meeting was more about incremental updates and a chance to see a giant combine on the show floor of CES.
Getting the combine inside the convention center required them to ensure they were on the ground floor, that they were first into the center and presumably last out. It may have taken a lot of work, but the combine was a hit. There were a lot of people walking around that thing. The technology was mostly hidden by the green Deere paint job, but it’s there. The little yellow dome on the top of the combine is a GPS unit so precise that the tractor can tell where it is on the earth within one inch.
There’s also a camera on the right side of the combine that is looking at the harvested grain or soybean coming through the combine. The camera scans the crop looking for unnecessary material and then informs the combine to make adjustments based on what it sees to literally separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s computer vision driving automation inside a $500,000 machine that spends all day bumping along hot, dusty fields. I walked away thinking that John Deere’s greatest achievement might be in making technology that can handle the elements, something Apple failed to do when building its fancy butterfly keyboard.
I also rode in a self-driving tractor. I was incredibly nervous as my friend who lives in Virginia was recently involved in a tractor-trailer accident and is currently in the midst of a challenging lawsuit. She was quite badly injured but is thankfully on the road to recovery. Nonetheless, I decided to face my fears and hop on board. Other than my excitement of being outside on a beautiful day in Vegas instead of crammed into the convention center, the ride was actually pretty dull. Deere started with automation and geolocation back in 1999 so it has had time to make its tractors pretty smooth. And unlike me in the test ride, farmers actually welcome the self-driving functionality because it frees up their brain so they can pay attention to things such as the soil condition or the progress of the machine being dragged by the tractor.
After the tractors, I spoke with Fabien Jordan, the CEO of Astrocast, a small satellite company. I’ve covered the satellite industry for years and have been skeptical of the economics of launching small sats with limited bandwidth for the IoT. Jordan says that the company has two satellites up in low-earth orbit at this time. The goal is to get 64 of them up there to handle millions of connected devices.
These satellites can handle once-a-day transmissions of about 1 kilobit. Astrocast wants to charge companies “A few dollars per year” for this connectivity. The firm was showing off two customers at CES. One is a water purifier destined for Africa. The satellite connectivity provided service in an area that cell phones don’t reliability reach and the transmissions let the operator know when it is time to change the filter. The other is an ocean-going buoy for locating fish.
To get all 64 satellites up in the air and operate them will require $50 million. Each satellite costs about half a million dollars to manufacture and launch. This is cheaper than current satellite services such as those from Irridium. Additionally, the modules required for an on the ground device to talk to the satellite are smaller and more power efficient. I do think there’s a market for this that will only grow if Astrocast can keep its costs at a few dollars per year. My concern is that after tasting what they can do with a little bit of bandwidth, companies may decide they need more. It’s not clear that Astrocast could keep up with that demand.
I am excited to see tech expand deeper into the farming world, our homes, and even space.