January 28, 2016      

Industrial automation is coming to agriculture, with precision agriculture managed by drones. Meanwhile, back on the ground, a handful of companies are making notable progress using robots to thin vegetables and eliminate weeds.

One of the most successful U.S. companies appears to be Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Blue River Technology, which in December raised $17 million in venture capital in a Series B funding round led by the Pontifax Global Food and Agriculture Technology Fund with participation from Monsanto Growth Ventures and Syngenta Ventures.

“They’re doing really cool stuff. The lettuce robot is probably first example of a true robot actually manipulating the plant. They’re actually managing the crop,” said George Kantor, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.

The firm’s technology has roots in the open-source Robot Operating System developed by tech incubator Willow Garage, which shows how previous innovations are making it easier for new robotics ventures to emerge.

Blue River’s tractor-drawn machines spray fertilizer or herbicides on unwanted plants at the rate of 5,000 plants per minute, said CEO Jorge Heraud. He said his 40-person company is already serving 10 percent of the $2 billion-a-year lettuce market, which is centered in California’s Salinas Valley and near Mexico on the California-Arizona border.

California is the center of much U.S. agriculture.

Much of America’s food supply is vulnerable to
drought. Click here to enlarge.

“Market acceptance has not been an issue,” Heraud insisted, though one of his competitors, San Diego-based Vision Robotics Corp., says it has had little success marketing its own competing thinners despite demonstrable cost savings.

Next, Heraud plans to adapt Blue River’s technology for use on other types of crops, as well as on eliminating weeds.

The University of Lincoln is using 3D cameras to develop a fully automated system for harvesting broccoli. As part of the £70 million ($99.7 million) Agri-Tech Catalyst in the U.K., the university is working to identify ripe crops, as well as those suffering from disease or insects.

Glowing plants to aid weeding

Robotic devices that chop weeds with knives have been in use in Europe for the past five years but are only now becoming available in the U.S.

Denmark-based F. Poulsen Engineering ApS is expected to deliver the first “Robovator” weed cutters purchased by customers at a cost of $125,000 through its first U.S. distributor, Salinas, Calif.-based Pacific Ag Rentals LLC.

Another Salinas-based company, Sutton Agricultural Enterprises Inc., is similarly awaiting delivery on the first two computer-controlled weed cutters it has sold retail (it previously sold a demo unit). Made by Netherlands-based Steketee, the units cost nearly $250,000.

“That’s the most technological advanced piece of equipment we have,” said Pete Davey, a Sutton salesman.

Meanwhile, a team from University of California, Davis, is working on its own weeding robot. It will use small knives to uproot weeds, but a commercial product is years away, said David Slaughter, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

The system uses a seed coating that will make plants fluorescent to help identify weeds.

In another innovative approach, Deepfield Robotics, a startup supported by Germany-based Bosch, is working on Bonirob, an autonomous robot that punches weeds.

Self-driving celebrity farmer

Take Canadian Matt Reimer, who recently became a YouTube celebrity of sorts with a video demonstrating a self-driving grain collection tractor he built using open-source autopilot software used by 3D Robotics.

The autonomous machine works in tandem with a tractor driven by Reimer, something not possible with the ubiquitous auto-steer technology that farmers use to keep tractors moving in a straight line.

Reimer, a 29-year-old who learned software coding online and has started his own robotics company, estimates that he saved $5,000 last year using the vehicle on his 2,500 acre canola and wheat farm in rural Manitoba because he didn’t have an employee stuck in a cab.

“There’s no way I’m going back on my own farm to having somebody drive the grain cart,” Reimer said.

Copenhagen-based Precision Makers A/S claims that its Greenbot is the first driverless agricultural machine. Greenbot is currently available in Europe at 120,000 euros ($128,000 U.S.) and in Australia, but adoption in the North American market may be slower because of distribution and liability issues.

“I see a market in North America for large farms, but liability is a big issue,” said Vincent Achten, mechatronics director at Precision Makers.

Picking needs patience

When it comes to actually handling crops in the field, for example by picking and pruning, robotics technology still has a significant way to go before its ready for prime time, said Slaughter and other experts. Nobody is “really even close” to developing a device that can robotically pick fruit off trees, he said.

“A lot of people in Silicon Valley in the tech industry seem to be thinking this simple,” Slaughter said. “People have been working on this since the ’60s.”

Cambridge Consultants Ltd., a British tech consultancy, unveiled a fruit-picking hand guided by machine vision last October, but it was a demonstration product. Something field-ready would likely be years away, said a company spokesman.

Still, interest remains high because of labor shortages, and there are numerous startups and university-led research projects aimed at developing such machines.

Juan Bravo, a Spaniard developing a strawberry picker with financial backing from berry industry leader Driscoll’s in Watsonville, Calif., says he is at least a year away from having something ready for sale.

The much-hyped Agrobot machine, a highly specialized device designed to harvest from plants in raised beds, still picks green berries about 8 percent of the time and leaves about 20 percent of the crop unpicked, Bravo said.

The precision agriculture future seems clear, however, and it is one filled with robots and widespread entrepreneurial innovation fueled by the rapidly dropping cost and usability of robotics-enabling computers, sensors, and software.

About the author:

Patrick Hoge is a veteran new reporter who has written extensively on government and business, including most recently about the San Francisco Bay Area’s technology scene for the San Francisco Business Times. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, and Robotics Business Review, among other publications.

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