TAMPA, Fla. — John Deere has picked SpaceX to provide connectivity its farming machines need to operate autonomously in rural areas via a new, ruggedized user terminal.

The terminal would be about the size of a pizza box and based on the high-performance flat dish SpaceX started offering for its Starlink satellite broadband network in 2022, Michael Kool, a senior product manager at John Deere, told SpaceNews.

Kool declined to discuss broadband speeds but said the terminal would enable compatible tractors outside cellular coverage to operate at the same level of autonomy as the company’s machines in areas well served by terrestrial networks.

Self-driving John Deere tractors can operate autonomously within a controlled area like a field. However, real-time connectivity is needed so a farmer who could be doing other jobs miles away can start and stop the machine with an app, monitor work, and determine how to proceed if the tractor encounters an issue.

John Deere also sells a 4G modem that can be retrofitted to enable connected machines to share information with the company’s operations center for remote diagnostics, farming analysis, and other applications relying on connectivity. 

The SpaceX partnership came after John Deere requested proposals from the space industry in September 2022 for ways to extend its connectivity-enabled services to rural areas.

Kool declined to comment on the other satellite networks John Deere considered, adding the company “is only working with SpaceX at this time.”

He said the companies still need to conduct tests to ensure the new ruggedized Starlink terminal can work well in the harshest environments.

The Starlink-enabled farming connectivity service is set to launch in the second half of 2024 in the United States and Brazil, John Deere announced in a Jan. 16 news release.

Customers would need to install the Starlink terminal and John Deere’s JDLink 4G modem to connect a tractor to the satellite-enabled service.

While pricing details were not announced, high-performance Starlink hardware geared for enterprise users costs $2,500 in the United States. A Starlink subscription plan for mobile internet starts at $250 a month for download speeds ranging from 40 megabits-per-second to around 220 Mbps.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...