John Deere Invites Others to Event Taking on Malicious Hackers

Annual CyberTractor Challenge becomes an industry-wide event


When John Deere began hosting its first CyberTractor Challenge two years ago, Karl Heimer had his doubts.

CyberTractor Challenge participants enthusiastically posing in a group photo

Heimer, founder of the CyberAuto, CyberMedical, CyberDrone, CyberBoat, and cofounder of the CyberTruck Challenges, worried Deere would never expand the ag industry’s first such cyber security event to industry peers/competitors.

“To be completely honest, I was deeply concerned … because I, incorrectly, it turns out, thought that any company starting such an event would hold it too closely, use it as a differentiator for hiring and eventual product development/maintenance/operation, and generally not share the lessons and outreach resulting from the event,” Heimer said.

The CyberTractor Challenge, now in its third year, gives students the opportunity to take cyber security classes and work on the embedded systems on real equipment. This year, the event expanded well beyond Deere, becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit with other ag manufacturers like CNH and AGCO participating.

The event, held in June, was also hosted at Iowa State University for the first time.

“Working with Karl over the last few years as he helped us build out our internal events has been great,” said John Leinart, John Deere’s business information security officer responsible for product security. “His guidance has been invaluable, and we’re excited about turning this into an industry-wide event this year. We think that this is a great step forward for our industry and will enable us to collaborate with others to address common cyber challenges.” 

An industry-leading event

Heimer explained that the intent of sister events like CyberTractor Challenge is to help educate and excite the next generation about cyber jobs, establish a community of interest amongst the different industry parties present, and to showcase cyber’s presence in the current and future product path for manufacturing in that industry.

“After the 2023 CyberTractor Challenge, I was aware that John Deere was decisively engaging other organizations, including (other) manufacturers and broad industry groups in seeking to provide the event to the community at large,” Heimer said.  

Heimer noted that John Deere purposefully engaged other manufactures to help create a board of directors which reflected the diversity of the industry. The board now consists of 3 representatives of manufacturers (each from a different company), a university professor, and a liaison with the other sibling events.

Heimer said that structure proves John Deere’s commitment to create the program and then offer it as a benefit to the entire ag industry.

“I am highly impressed with the commitment to the entire ecosystem, from growers to manufactures to suppliers to maintainers to the consumers of agriculture that this program reflects,” Heimer said. “This cooperation is remarkable and shows what an industry leader can do by purposefully seeking to do good.”

Heimer said he’s also been impressed by the team of digital security experts at John Deere.

“John Deere (has) built an amazing team of engineers and furnished them with terrific laboratories and test environments to develop and verify their products,” Heimer said. “Their test environment is what the goal of transportation manufacturers should seek.”