“Not only is this strategically where we want to be with the market leader, but we also know Deere on a human level, and we know that our cultures align and our values align,” says Igino Cafiero, CEO and co-founder of Bear Flag Robotics. “It was really a no-brainer.”
Bear Flag builds autonomous driving technology for tractors. The company has been working with Deere since 2019 as part ofDeere’s startup collaborator program, an initiative focused on working with startups with technology that could add value for Deere’s customers. During that time, Deere shared its customers’ insights on autonomous farming with Bear Flag, and Bear Flag shared its results from the field with Deere. Both revealed the same core principle.
“Growers invest in things that deliver value,” Cafiero says. “We know that at our core, and so does Deere. Constantly making sure that the technology that we're developing to deliver value to them actually does that. That's one of the reasons that we're so aligned with leadership as well.”
Bear Flag’s current focus is primary and secondary tillage, along with the safety measures, algorithms that monitor the machine’s performance and data management that goes along with the tractors’ operations.
“These are the things that a human deals with,” Cafiero says. “An experienced tractor operator will deal with these things without really thinking twice about them. But it's incumbent on us to train the machine on how to do that as well.”
A fleet of John Deere 8R tractors with Bear Flag’s autonomous technology is currently operating on farms in California and Florida, as well as Arizona starting in winter. Cafiero says the larger machines can till 10 acres in 20 minutes.
Discussions About Dealers, Retrofitting Options in the Works
Discussions about how and when Deere dealerships will receive Bear Flag’s technology are still in the works. According to Cafiero, Bear Flag is actively working on timelines for when retrofitting options will be available.
“That's really where we're going as quickly as possible,” Cafiero says.
He says a lot of support and potentially some training will go into ensuring that customers can best utilize the autonomous technology.
“Working with the dealerships to enable that will be key to our success,” Cafiero says. “My conversations with leadership really establishing what we're going after and how we're going to deliver the most value to the grower in that specific space will be key to that.”
As the product is coming to market, Cafiero is focused on how growers want to use Bear Flag’s technology and meeting their expectations. Eliminating the need to retrain the workforce and integrating the grower’s existing skill set are key.
“If you need a robotics degree to operate a tractor, that's going to fail,” Cafiero says. “This needs to be as simple as opening your iPhone.”
Growers currently use an Android tablet to control tractors with Bear Flag’s autonomous driving technology. The tablet visualizes the path, speeds and other data from the machine, along with providing video feeds of what’s happening in the field. If the tractor stops, Cafiero says the tablet will show an explanation of the issue.
‘No Question’ about Future of Autonomous John Deere Tractors
Bear Flag’s autonomous driving technology is compatible with any type of tractor, but the company has been strictly working with Deere tractors since the acquisition in August. Cafiero says there’s a huge opportunity with existing green tractors, which is the company’s focus right now, but expanding to other colors is “an opportunity that is ahead of us if we choose to pursue it.”
Cafiero says there’s no question that there’s a future where John Deere equipment is autonomous out of the factory, but the long-term vision and product branding are still to be determined. Right now, Bear Flag remains a subsidiary of Deere, working closely with Deere’s leadership while still remaining its own company.
Cafiero says Bear Flag is recruiting for a variety of roles, and its staff will grow “immensely” in the next 18 months.
“We're just thrilled to be on this rocket ship,” Cafiero says. “The opportunity landscape is so large. The possibilities we have in front of us are endless, and it's a really exciting time to be at Bear Flag.”
Hear more about Cafiero’s vision for Bear Flag’s future, including potential future technologies, and his predictions for the future of farming inthis episode of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast.