Old MacDonald had a farm, ee, ai, ee, ai, oh. And on that farm he had some robots, ee, ai, ee, ai—oh yes, the robots are headed to the country. Much of AgTech has focused on innovations such as high-resolution satellite imagery to survey farm yields or the development of bugs to improve the health of crops. Sure, there have been automated machines to do some of the heavy lifting but agriculture robots capable of doing labor-intensive jobs such as picking vegetables without mangling the fruits of labor have been slow to reach the market to help Farmer Joe.
Now this is the part of the article where we make some edgy jokes about how we don’t have to build a border wall with Mexico because agriculture robots are going to take away jobs from illegal immigrants. The main point, however, is that jobs will be lost as Big Ag looks to AgTech robots to save on labor. (It’s not as bad as you might think, as we’ll discuss below.)
Think about progressive California, where people have this crazy idea to pay workers a fair wage with benefits. Last year, the world’s sixth-largest economy passed a law that requires agriculture businesses and farms to pay employees overtime. Nearly a third of the United States’ 1.2 million full-time farmworkers are employed in California, according to AgFunderNews. California grows more than 60 percent of domestic fruit and nuts and about a third of U.S. vegetables, AgFunderNews notes. While only about one percent of the U.S. population gets its hands dirty, about 40 percent of the rest of the world still lives an agrarian lifestyle.
So while agriculture robots may not be as sexy as drone racing or battle bots, they stand to disrupt far more lives than those of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. wannabees of the world. Agriculture robots will eventually work faster and cheaper than even José—and without the specter of la migra raiding Farmer Joe’s strawberry fields. Our article earlier this year on AgTech startups covered a wide range of companies, including one called Blue River Technology that develops robotic systems that use computer vision to apply fertilizers more judiciously. Blue River has scooped up about $30.5 million in funding.
More recently, we found another company building agriculture robots that has gotten serious interest from investors. California-based Abundant Robots took in $10 million this month, led by GV (formerly Google Ventures). That brings total funding to about $12 million. The startup was spun out of nonprofit research institute SRI International. Abundant Robotics’ niche is developing robots capable of picking apples without bruising the fruit or inadvertently turning it into apple juice. In this case, the agriculture robot is more like Dr. Octopus, using vacuum arms to harvest apples. You can watch the pulse-pounding action in the video (with 1970s porn production quality) below:
The money should help Abundant Robotics achieve commercial production, according to TechCrunch.
Another California company, Vision Robotics, is reportedly also working on an octopus-like orange harvesting machine. The San Diego startup was founded in 1999 and has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding so far. According to one story, Vision Robotics is developing an agriculture robot tandem. One robot uses machine vision to build a 3D map of a fruit tree while a second multi-armed robot follows to harvest the fruit. The company has also developed an intelligent vacuum cleaner—another two-part robotic system—but is reportedly looking for investors to commercialize the technology. There may be smarter ways to invest in robotic vacuum cleaners as we’ve discussed previously. The Vision Robotics model just seems a little overly engineered in our estimation. Judge for yourself:
That thing might actually start sifting through your jewelry drawer when you’re not around, so it’s probably a good idea to hide your valuables when you’re out of the house. Other agriculture robots developed by Vision Robotics include a lettuce thinner, grapevine pruner and weeder.
We’re the first to admit that we don’t exactly have a green thumb, but the nearly $34.5 million greenbacks that have been poured into Massachusetts-based Harvest Automation seems a bit extraordinary. Funding includes three rounds of debt financing for more than $8.5 million. The company’s flagship product, R2D2 VX-100, is designed to work in a variety of manual labor positions but mostly seems to be employed in nurseries to move potted plants around. Apparently that’s very important for plants. In one case study, four of the droid-like VX-100s relocated 200,000 rose plants across 60 acres, perfectly spacing them at a critical time in the season, thus saving Valentine’s Day and keeping those annoying rose sellers gainfully employed.
The company certainly plays up the labor savings angle, noting that some states are considering a $15 minimum wage and that the VX-100 will save employers money on health care. More than 150 of the agriculture robots have been deployed. An attempt to develop a warehouse version of VX-100 fell flat and eventually caused the company to downsize significantly.
Leave it to the French to develop a robot specifically for weeding vineyards. Why startup Naïo Technologies calls its agriculture robots Ted and Bob is probably one of those unsolvable mysteries, such as why the French find Jerry Lewis so darn funny. The company has raised nearly $4 million, most recently a $3.27 million Seed round back in December 2015. Here’s a look at Ted, and what he sees through his beady little robot eyes:
Other weeding robots developed by the company include Oz and Dino. The latter is a large-scale vegetable weeding and hoeing robot that is smaller and lighter than a tractor, and powered by electricity. It also collects data about crops to help manage yields.
Also on the other side of the Atlantic, ecoRobotix is a Swiss company with a solar-powered weeding robot. It looks like a ping pong table on wheels—if a ping pong table also had mechanical arms underneath it. The agtech startup has raised about $3 million. Its agriculture robot, which is still in development, applies machine vision, GPS and other sensors to precisely eradicate weeds. It can follow crop rows and detect weeds with 95 percent precision. The mechanical arms then squirts a small dose of herbicide directly onto the offending weed as depicted below:
The company claims its machine can reduce pesticide use by 20-fold and run 12 hours on just the sun—no batteries required. It’s fully autonomous and programmable via a smart phone. Testing on new prototypes began this spring, with hopes to begin commercial manufacturing next year.
Sometimes it just takes a softer touch, even when it comes to robotics. That’s the philosophy behind Soft Robotics, a Cambridge startup that has raised $5 million. Soft Robotics has developed a gripper out of elastomeric materials, a polymer with rubber-like elasticity, that is dexterous and sensitive enough to handle everything from eggs to strawberries to Hostess cupcakes. Here’s another video of more robotic things moving stuff:
Currently, the startup’s gripper arms are mostly doing the picking on conveyer belts for food shipping, but the company has floated the idea of adapting its technology for an agriculture robot in the field.
A recent article in Forbes notes that the agricultural industry is prime for a robot revolution, particularly given a labor shortage that’s been growing since the 1990s. Well before talk of a wall, immigration from our southern neighbor has been in decline. And, let’s face it, where are you going to find white people to pick strawberries unless it’s a weekend outing to an organic farm where they’ll pay $10 a pint for the privilege? The full automaton of the American farm is just decades—if not years—away from reality. EE, ai, ee, ai, oh.
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