Deere, Bear Flag aim to automate tractors as 'fast as possible'

Equipment for sale is seen at a John Deere dealer in Denver
Equipment for sale is seen at a John Deere dealer in Denver, Colorado, U.S. May 14, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

Aug 5 (Reuters) - U.S. tractor maker Deere & Co (DE.N) said on Thursday it would buy agriculture tech startup Bear Flag Robotics for $250 million, with the goal of developing over the next year systems Deere can sell to allow farm tractors to operate without a human driver in the cab.

"We are effectively in market with real customers today," Dan Leibfried, Deere's Director of Automation and Autonomy, told Reuters. Bear Flag has been testing automated tractors on farms in California. Deere began working with the startup in 2019.

Over the next 12 months, Leibfriend said, Deere and Bear Flag intend to develop their automated tractor technology for commercial production in higher volume.

"We want to get this on farms as fast as possible," he said.

Bear Flag Chief Operating Officer Aubrey Donnellan said the company's technology is designed so it can be installed on an existing tractor.

"We retrofit existing machines. We want to deliver a solution growers can use in the short term" to respond to shortages of skilled labor in agriculture, Donnellan said.

So far, Donnellan said, Bear Flag has focused its development on automating tractors for tilling fields on California farms that aim to plant two or more crops a year. Self-driving tractors that run 24 hours a day can allow farmers to squeeze in extra plantings, she said.

"That's dollars in their pocket," she said.

Reporting by Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and Aurora Ellis

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Joe White is a global automotive correspondent for Reuters, based in Detroit. Joe covers a wide range of auto and transport industry subjects, writes The Auto File, a three-times weekly newsletter about the global auto industry. Joe joined Reuters in January 2015 as the transportation editor leading coverage of planes, trains and automobiles, and later became global automotive editor. Previously, he served as the global automotive editor of the Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw coverage of the auto industry and ran the Detroit bureau. Joe is co-author (with Paul Ingrassia) of Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, and he and Paul shared the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1993.