Technology is revolutionizing farming.
There are self-driving tractors. High-speed planters that drop seeds with sub-inch accuracy. Sprayers that minimize applications of inputs such as fertilizer to reduce costs.
But tech breakthroughs don’t mean much if they make spring planting, summer spraying, or fall harvesting more difficult. Margaux Ascherl wants to make sure technology works for the farmer – not the other way around.
“They shouldn’t have to think about integrating technology into their farm as a job,” she said. “It should just work for them. We want a farmer and technology to be partners, a relationship that works to make things easier, more efficient, and more productive.”
Ascherl is senior principal user experience lead researcher for automation at John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) in Urbandale, Iowa. ISG develops advanced technology such as machine learning, connectivity, computer vision, robotics, and sensors.
“At the end of the day, I’m responsible for helping farmers run easier, safer, and more sustainable operations,” Ascherl said. “I don’t think there is a better mission out there to be part of.”
Ascherl earned a Ph.D. from Clemson University in Human Factors Psychology, which may, at first glance, not appear to have much of a link to agriculture. But there’s more of a mind-machine connection than you might think.
“My major focused on studying the capabilities and limitations of humans, and how we can design technology that complements our strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “I did a lot of research on cognitive decision making and automation, which gave me plenty of insight on how to make technology truly work with a people and not against them.”
Today, Ascherl and her team are developing new ways to integrate intuitive and understandable technological advancements into John Deere equipment.
“I’m always amazed by the sheer volume of what farmers deal with throughout the day,” she said. “For example, when they’re in the tractor, they’re rolling through the field looking out the window and keeping an eye out for any changes relative to environmental conditions. They’re checking displays, adjusting equipment, analyzing data, and managing business logistics.
“When we introduce a new product designed to eliminate low-value or repetitive tasks, it’s awesome to watch the operator just to sit back and relax,” she added. ”That way, he can focus on what really matters: farming.”
Technology That Matters
One application in particular developed by Ascherl and her ISG colleagues stands out: Combine Advisor. It’s a tech tool designed to help farmers better optimize machine settings during harvesting due to changing crop, field, or weather conditions.
“In the past, operators would have to make tons of in-cab micro adjustments while in the field,” Ascherl said. “Today, we’re helping them monitor the crop as it’s coming through the machine. All they have to do is set a target and the combine handles adjustments needed to optimize the grain, so there’s no more looking backwards and forwards to maximize productivity. We just do that for them.”
No matter how advanced high-tech solutions become, every technological breakthrough starts with the customer.
“We talk with our customers and develop close relationships with them. That’s it,” Ascherl said. “We start by understanding what they’re doing, what they’re looking at every day, what decisions they’re making and why. We even find out how many times they’re pressing a certain button or pulling the hydro handle. We use all of this information to figure out what ‘easy’ looks like for them, and then we go to work to give them what they need.
“Most of our farmers are eager for this technology” Ascherl said. “They know that John Deere will never take the farmer out of the farm, because no one knows how to run a farm better than our farmers do today.”
Work Never Stops
No matter what challenges arise, a farmer’s work never stops. Not for a civil war, two global conflicts, a Great Depression, or a worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Suffice to say if they’re running, then Deere is, too.
“We know our farmers are working just as hard this spring as they always would,” Ascherl said. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see them out there doing their best to keep our food supply going. John Deere employees are as motivated as ever to get our customers the products they need when they need them. I want to help ease their burden during a very uncertain time, because the world is depending on us.”
For now, Ascherl is managing her work from home, while she and her husband care for two small children. Her story mirrors those of millions of others who are dealing with a new – but hopefully, temporary – normal.
“We don’t know yet how long the COVID-19 outbreak might go on, but I think we’ll all look back and be proud of how we took care of our people first then found ways to deliver the products our customers needed,” she said. ”We’re all doing our jobs very differently yet somehow the same. Everything we’re doing right now is for the good of our society. It’s what we do every day and what we will continue to do despite the challenges the world may give us.”