Blue River, Deere Deal Will Accelerate Farm Robot Innovation

One of Blue River’s R&D See & Spray rigs hard at work in a cotton field outside of Lubbock, TX, in July 2017.

No, Blue River Co-founder and CEO Jorge Heraud has not been deposed — Gaddafi-style — by big, bad corporate overlord John Deere.

That’s according to both sides of the buzz-generating, $305 million dollar acquisition the two companies jointly announced last week.

Heraud, fast becoming a friend to us here at PrecisionAg® Professional after we spent a few days with him and his team in Lubbock, TX, back in July as they honed See & Spray’s herbicide delivery accuracy amidst the stubbly West Texas cotton farmscape, was downright giddy upon our connecting via telephone late last Friday afternoon.

“I am happy and delighted, I really think Deere is going to be a good partner for us,” he shared. “One of the things I’m happiest about is that, John Deere is acquiring us to accelerate us. They’re putting more fuel on our fire.”

I, as well as many others around the industry, had a few initial misgivings about the Deere takeover: How would Deere’s large corporate structure influence Blue River’s nimble, grounded-in-field-work market approach? Would Moline keep Heraud and Co. around to see the 99-yard touchdown drive they launched back in 2011 from a little garage in Salinas, CA, culminate in points, or bring in its own engineering substitutes?

Heraud, as well as Deere’s Deanna Kovar, both quickly assured me that day-to-day operation at Blue River would remain under the purview of those in Sunnyvale.

“The whole idea on (Deere) buying Blue River is to keep us nimble, and we’re going to be operating as a subsidiary of John Deere,” he clarifies. “I’ll report to Deere’s ISG group, but everybody at Blue River will continue to report through me. We’re staying nimble and fast, and we’re going to just have a lot of expertise coming to us.”

“We don’t want to change the focus for them at all with this acquisition,” Kovar adds. “We just want to help them to bring it to life even further, and then help them figure out how else the combination of Blue River and John Deere can help farmers lower their costs and increase yields.”

Although the Deere deal brings significantly deeper pockets to Blue River’s repertoire — not to mention John Deere’s vast, world renowned equipment manufacturing and engineering resources — the go-forward development and commercialization plan Heraud outlined in our August profile of See & Spray remains intact.

“That’s exactly the plan,” Heraud responds when asked if soybeans are still the next target for R&D. “In 2018 we’ll continue to work deeper into cotton, and in addition to that be working with the machine in soybeans, and the goal is still to be doing more or less what we were doing in 2017, but to be doing it in 2018 in soybeans.”

Blue River Co-founder and CEO Jorge Heraud.

The issues around dicamba application this summer throughout the country helped crystallize that game plan, according to Heraud.

“Soybeans really need it,” he says of See & Spray-like technology. “There has been a lot of good things with dicamba, and also things that were unintended, like drift and volatilization. Volatilization is a big one, and our machine can help with that by using a lot less herbicide. We help reduce that threat in a big way, and obviously that makes soybeans a more urgent target for us.”

Beyond See & Spray

From the Deere side of things, Kovar makes it quite clear that Moline saw a lot more potential in Blue River than just its LettuceBot and the coming See & Spray rig.

“We think machine learning is not just about the sprayer,” Kovar shares. “We didn’t go after a company like Blue River just because of See & Spray. It’s about these same capabilities that we feel can be applied to every aspect of farming. It’s about making a farm as efficient as possible.”

Kovar and Deere feel that, by applying machine learning and artificial intelligence across every aspect of every operation, the equipment giant can help lessen the burden its operators shoulder on a daily basis in what many feel is currently one of the least automated industries in the world.

“There’s just an unlimited amount of decisions that we put on an operator every day, and those operators do an amazing job in the field, but we can automate more and more of that and it makes their lives much easier,” she explains. “It’s kind of like the beginning of AutoTrac. Very few farmers at the time were asking to automate the steering job, but once they experienced it and learned about the reduction in inputs, it became something that is not replaceable. Now sometimes if AutoTrac is down farmers just stop farming.”

I suppose it also bares noting that Heraud indicated during our brief discussion that Blue River’s technology potentially will not be limited to hanging out in Deere’s precision farming and ag equipment sectors, but could find new applications in the equipment giant’s construction vertical, among other varied industries where Blue River currently doesn’t dabble.

And now, no longer burdened with having to chase the proverbial venture capital funding dragon to keep its development and to-market work afloat, perhaps Blue River has the perfect mix of funding, manufacturing and distribution capabilities, as well as engineering backing, to take its intriguing future vision of a production system where management decisions are no longer made on a field-level, but on an individual plant-by-plant basis, mainstream. Deere, for one, seems to also believe in a future where ag decisions reach that level of extreme granularity.

“Our visions of needing to apply technology to make that notion of going from a field-level decision to a plant-level decision were very much aligned. When you pair that with Deere’s world class ability to develop and manufacturer equipment, it just brings a great level of speed to both sides.”

Deere is expected to close on the deal by mid-month, according to sources.

RELATED: Jorge Heraud to speak on “Automation, Robotics, and Machine Learning” at PrecisionAg Vision Conference in October.

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