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Deere's autonomous tractor at work. Photo: Deere & Co.

Deere & Company introduced the world's first autonomous tractor Tuesday, a technology breakthrough that could help farmers cope with a worsening skilled labor shortage.

Why it matters: Farmers are getting older — 55 years old on average — and with more than 80% of the U.S. population residing in urban areas, there aren't enough laborers to do the work or operate machinery.

  • So robots are the new farmhands as growers try to boost productivity to keep up with soaring global demand for food, biofuels and other agricultural products.

Driving the news: The giant green and yellow machine, which debuted at CES, the annual consumer electronic show in Las Vegas, represents a new era in agriculture.

  • "The last time agriculture was on the precipice of this much change was when we were on the cusp of replacing the horse and plow," Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman tells Axios.

For the first time, a farm tool can do the work without a human or animal providing the labor.

  • While Deere has had self-guided tractors since 1999, operators have remained in the cab. Now, its tractors can operate autonomously, 24 hours a day.
  • All the farmer has to do is transport the machine to a field and configure it for autonomous operation. Using a phone or tablet, the farmer then swipes left to right on Deere's app to start the machine.
  • The farmer can leave the field to focus on other tasks while monitoring the machine's status on a mobile device.

How it works: Deere’s 8R tractor is outfitted with a GPS guidance system and new advanced technologies including artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.

  • Six pairs of stereo cameras provide a 360-degree view around the machine.
  • Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network at a rate of 3 frames per second to determine if an obstacle is detected and whether the machine should keep moving or stop.
  • The tractor continuously checks its position relative to a so-called "geofence," to make sure it's operating where it is supposed to, within an inch of accuracy.
  • Data collected by the tractor can also help farmers make better strategic decisions in the future.

The bottom line: Deere has been adding automation to its farm machinery for 20 years, enabling precision planting, for example, and the spraying of fertilizer or pesticides on individual plants.

  • With its fully autonomous tractor, available later this year, farmers can now leave chores like tilling the soil to the machine.

Go deeper

Updated Jan 5, 2022 - Technology

What's happened so far at CES 2022

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

While many tech companies have pulled out of an in-person presence this year, the CES show is going on, with thousands of companies still exhibiting and others shifting to an online-only approach to deliver their new products and announcements.

The big picture: The pandemic has been a huge challenge for product launch events, but a boon to demand for consumer electronics for both work and play. Here's the latest from CES — check back all week for more from the Axios tech team.

Why 401(k) rollovers are so annoying

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you happened to change jobs recently, you may have tried to transfer your retirement account from your former employer into an Individual Retirement Account or your new employer's 401(k) plan. If so, you probably encountered a bureaucratic gantlet — and you're not alone.

Why it matters: Kludgey processes around retirement account transfers result in people losing track of their funds, giving up important tax advantages, or otherwise disadvantaging themselves and being less prepared for retirement.

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.