Play the latest episode:

Subscribe to this podcast

Subscribe - Podcast

In this episode of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast we’re headed to Fresno, Calif., for FIRA USA 2022.

We catch up with Swarm Farm, GUSS Automation, Naio Technologies and Carbon Robotics representatives for a look at the newest ag robots hitting the market.

Listen in as we connect with industry leaders and explore the future of precision farming at the premier agricultural robotics and technology forum.

Subscribe to Google Play
Subscriber to Stitcher
Subscribe to TuneIn

Full Transcript

Noah Newman:

Great to have you with us as always on the Precision Farming Dealer podcast. My name is Noah Newman, associate editor. Thanks for tuning in. Today we're taking the show on the road to Fresno, California for FIRA 2022, the California Ag Robotics & Technology Forum. So we had the chance to catch up with several companies and get an up close look at their robots. Our first stop takes us to the GUSS booth, Grower Success Manager, Ben Villines fills us in on the latest from GUSS Automation.

Ben Villines:

Hi Ben Villines. Grower Success Manager for GUSS Automation. At GUSS, I kind of put the puzzle pieces together between our production line, our IT guys, our dealers, help customers get started on the right foot, make sure everything is ready to go, my time units get to field, make sure customer has training, dealers have training so that way everyone can start off the right way. So we're standing next to would be kind of our flagship, what we started with, which is Orchard GUSS, 600 gallon orchard sprayer, fully autonomous, four wheel drive, four wheel steer kind of Cadillac. It's kind of all the best components. Very overbuilt machine. Every machine that's out there is still running. So a lot of customers come back and have started with four, now have eight. Those who have eight now have 12. So it's been a very, very successful machine. But this unit here is kind of the big boy.

So this is going to be more for nut crops. So you're looking almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, all of those crops. So customers who are in somewhere where this guy's not going to fit are obviously going to run towards Mini GUSS, which is new for last year. So Mini GUSS is going to be four foot shorter, two feet narrower and a foot shorter height wise. So you do give up a little bit of capacity. You've got 400 gallons versus 600 gallons, but obviously you're not going to fit this guy in a vineyard without... It's just not going to work. So that's our second product line, we also have a herbicide unit coming out, which is based on this platform. So you'll have a 600 gallon herbicide sprayer. That unit is going to have the option to have WEED-IT sensors on it. So you'll have nine WEED-IT sensors. So you're looking maybe spraying 60 gallons on a tank by using WEED-IT.

So WEED-IT's nice because it sprays just the weed so you don't have to strip spray. So you can use a lot less chemical going that way. Where you fill it less, cover more ground. Efficiency is where it's at, which is kind of another area where GUSS shines. We take a lot of the user error out of spraying. So one, it's nice because you don't have a guy on a tractor that's going to be around the chemicals. So we take him out, he's in a pickup with a laptop. Most common we see is we'll see one operator with a pickup and a laptop monitoring four GUSSs, you can do up to eight. But the kind of the sweet spot is we'll see an operator, four GUSSs, and then we'll see like a 2400 gallon nurse truck that will nurse some. So GUSS is going to stop when it gets to a refill point.

Nurse truck plugs in, machine's immobilized, there's actually multiple safety features making sure the machine doesn't move. Refill times could be three minutes or less and then it hits resume and bam, you keep spraying. So you can really cover a lot of ground. Your speed is always the same, your application rate's always the same. There's really, there's no room for error. So a lot of our software makes it so you can't double spray, so you're not going to accidentally spray the same row twice or you're not going to overlap sprayers. And this sprayer already sprayed here and that one does the same thing. So we've got a lot of technology built in where pretty much every turn you're picking up efficiencies, you're getting more precision, and then obviously being able to sit in a pickup with heat and AC is a lot nicer than being on a tractor doing two and a half miles an hour row after row after row.

So hugely successful products. Orchard GUSSs, we've got about 165 of these out now. So Orchard GUSSs are going to be a lot in central California. We've got these in Florida, in Australia, down in Arizona. And then Mini GUSS is going to be mostly Pacific Northwest. So we've got some up there and apples in Oregon and Washington. And then obviously central California, we're going to have those in vineyards down here too. But that's kind of the gist of the company. So we've been selling since 2019, so we've been in it, we've been doing it. The first 10 units that they hand built, they built for themselves. And those units are all still out spraying, so they're definitely an overbuilt machine, you're not going to hurt it. So they're built to last. So most of our dealers right now are going to be John Deere dealers. So we're kind of slowly adding more dealers in.

There's no reason to add a hundred dealers and not be able to get machines out. We build two a week right now, so our dealers are kind of... We're putting them in strategic locations where the market is going to... Where those customers going to be at that are going to utilize these machines. So obviously you're not going to have a 50 acre grower going to go buy an autonomous sprayer, but it's mostly John Deere dealers and all our dealers, we train them to be self-sufficient. So dealers right now are in all the states where the machines are at. So we've got dealers up and down California, Pacific Northwest, so Oregon, Washington, we have a dealer in Florida and we have a dealer in Arizona and we have a dealer in Arizona too. So kind of everywhere our machines are at, we make sure there's a dealer there to support those customers.

It's going to be hopefully still a cutting edge. So I feel like with as many units as we have out and return customers and the success rate that we're seeing customers and how successful our dealers have been, we're just going to keep growing. Five years from now, we may be, hey, we have 2000 units out or whatever it happens to be. We'll have an Orchard GUSS, we'll have a Mini GUSS, our herbicide prototype's going to be here, who knows what else will be after that. We have a mini herbicide or something electric or who knows. So definitely our focus is on the high value crop stuff. So you're going to see nuts and fruits and vineyards. I don't see us branching out into row crop stuff. So definitely we're going to concentrate on what our bread and butter is, which is a lot of the high value stuff. So that's kind of where we want to be, where want to serve growers, that's kind of where the need is.

Noah Newman:

Thank you very much for that Ben. SwarmFarm CEO, Andrew Bate, meanwhile was a very popular guy at the forum, but he's such a nice guy. He took some time to chat with us about the future of his company and autonomy in general. Here's Andrew.

Andrew Bate:

So we're an Australian AgTech company, building agricultural robotics. We're very much born on the farm, so we're farmers ourselves. All of our software developers, all of our team are based on farm in Australia. I guess we pride ourselves in practical technology that farmers can use. And one of our big milestones earlier this year we cracked 1 million acres commercially farmed with our robots and we're very proud of what our teams have I guess achieved in that they're genuine hand over the keys, autonomous robots, and they're not operated by our staff. They're operated by farms in Australia. And yeah, it's been quite an incredible journey to take something from a vision from our own farm through to a startup technology company through a commercially deployed, hardened, rugged company that could actually deliver autonomy.

Important difference between what SwarmFarm's doing and I guess what else is happening in the broader robotic industry, we've developed what we call integrated autonomy. So we build base robots or base platforms, which are the robots themselves. And if you look actually at this picture here, we just build autonomous robots. So we build this part, we don't build the spray tanks, we don't build the spray booms. We actually partner and integrate with third parties to put the technology on board. So we took a view very early in agriculture that the world needs a platform and we need a platform to deliver autonomy under farms, but also we need thousands of developers around the world work on new technology to release it into autonomous agriculture, to truly change the way we farm. So we never started SwarmFarm to save farm labor or kind of cut labor costs. We actually started SwarmFarm as a company to bring new farming practices into play that could actually change the way we grow our crops and that's what we set out to achieve.

And so that's why it's so important with integrated autonomy that we're now building the platform that allows companies around the world that have developed new weeding technology, fruit picking technology, chemical free pest control technology, more efficient ways to use fertilizers, application of biologicals on plants. We're allowing the kind of innovators developing this new technology to get their products to market. And I think that's really important because farmers need autonomy and they need these new farming practices, but also AgTech needs a pathway and way for it to be delivered practically. That's kind of what we're doing here. We deploy our robots with farmers and for a three year period, so farmers sign up for one of our robots for a three year term. We fully support that robot for the three years and then we change that robot out three years down the track. It's a really good model because the technology's moving so fast that three years down the track, our robots are pretty much obsolete.

Software's harder to support on older hardware. I guess with the amount of utilization that we're getting now, our customers are cracking 3000 plus hours a year on our robots now, it's not a toy. And so three years down the track we're getting close to 10,000 hours on the clock of these machines. Now if you look out there, most people buying new tractors and farming machinery who buy them new, don't own them for 10,000 hours, they've traded them in before then because of reliability. Well, it's the same in autonomy. No one wants an unreliable autonomous vehicle. So that three year term has actually been a really good way to roll our technology out so farmers don't get stuck with legacy equipment that no one wants, but we don't get stuck with technology we can't support as new generations of technology come out. It's actually worked really good and our customers really like that model.

It's interesting in Australia. So we are starting to see broad scale adoption of autonomy in Australia. So it's not hard to drive around areas of Queensland and New South Wales now and see our robots running autonomously in paddocks. And it's sort of the norm in some towns where the adoption's been really high. And as we're starting to scale out now and grow the company, there's more and more robots pouring into these farming areas in Australia. So it's been a really exciting journey here in Australia. I think also in terms of the broader industry and AgTech, we've probably focused a lot on single point solutions. So trying to solve one particular problem. How do I kill weeds with steam or how do I inter-cultivate between weeds or how do I pick a tomato? These are really hard problems to solve and take a lot of work and you're seeing a lot of venture capital burn up into solving these problems and they're really important problems to solve.

It's just that they're hard and it takes some time to get there. So what we're seeing now is adoption of technology that's got an ROI now, which is exciting and we're seeing that pattern flow out now with the robots we got out there and I suppose a bit we're really excited about and so is the farming community is these high end ROI type products, the things that can pick through, the things that can prune vines, the stuff that sort of can harvest different crops like cotton in the future. Doesn't quite exist yet robotically, but it will and that's where it gets really exciting in the future. Yeah, very much so. I guess for the future of SwarmFarm, we build partnerships with other companies and help get their product to market. Like I said, we don't build tools and attachments for our robots, we just seek to help everyone get to market and partner with us and help us get to customers.

So I think our growth's going to be really built on those partnerships we've already built and also new partnerships as well. We'll send our first robots into North America next year. So thinking about first deployments, where we send them, which industries they go into and where we can find an ROI now that makes sense, knowing that some AgTech's still coming that we're excited about but not quite ready yet. [inaudible 00:12:02] a tech that can actually fit on board and actually start making a difference with autonomy as well. So it'll be pretty interesting for us as we start to spread our wings outside Australia.

Noah Newman:

Thank you very much, Andrew. Now let's head over to Nile Technologies. A lot of people were over there checking out their three robots, including Orio. Director of sales, Christian Melendez gives us a scoop.

Christian Melendez:

Hello, my name is Christian Melendez. I am director of sales for North America for Naio Technologies. We are an Ag Robotics company and this is Oreo. He's one of our newest robots. We're starting to take retail orders and we'll be delivering here in the middle of 2023. One thing that makes our technology special, and it's true with all our robots, whether it's the smallest or the largest, is they all have three key factors. They're all electric, they're all autonomous, and they all have built in RTK GPS. That's a normal tech. Normally that technology is reserved for really, really high value crops or growers with a lot of capital. Now a smaller grower can participate and have the accuracy of RTK technology, so that's something that I'm particularly proud of. This unit Orio is designed for field crops. Everything from lettuce, broccoli, sugar beets, carrots, onions.

It will adapt. It could do 40 inch beds, 80 inch beds. Again, it's fully electric and we're good for about seven to 10 hours of running time depending on soil conditions. And charging time is about eight hours. You can flop the batteries out in about half an hour so you can keep it running on a long summer day. Being that it's fully electric, there's an electric motor at each of the axles. So it has four wheel drive and four wheel steering, less moving parts in an electric engine. So there's less weight, less soil compaction. And that's something that the growers are very, very keen on. We have technology from... We are a robot company, we're not a tool company. So we partner with a lot of companies and they provide us our technology. This unit has cult interline weeding and that really allows us to get super precise to the plant.

And for an organic grower that doesn't use herbicides well, it's a godsend and for a conventional grower, it allows them to save money because let's say they were doing a six inch herbicide line, now they can do a four inch herbicide or a three inch because they can get that much more accurate. Any grower that has problems with weeding or wants to do seeding, we're not a tractor, we're an autonomous tool carrier. So you can seed, you can weed. In the future. We're hoping to integrate pesticide applications. If you're a farmer and you're looking to get more precise work in your field, we're ideal for that. This is the way the world's going and we like to say that we're the tip of the spear.

There's a three step process. Usually what we'll do is we'll do a demo, we'll take a robot out to the field and we'll demonstrate it. Next step is they'll pay us on a per acre basis and we'll do it and then usually after a half a year or a year, the grower will just end up buying a unit. Now we do have a lot of customers that don't want to deal with the technology, so they'll just pay us and they've been customers two, three years and we go weed for them on a weekly or monthly basis and we do it that way. So we definitely adjust to the grower.

Where you have one operator controlling multiple units and kind of like when you go into Best Buy, you have the guy in front of all the computer screens. So you'll have an operator in the field with an iPad and he's viewing cameras in real time on the robots and he can monitor four to six units at one time. This is the tip of the spear. We need help in agriculture, we got to get more efficient, we have to get more effective and the only way we're going to do it is doing it this way with robots and artificial intelligence in the field.

Noah Newman:

Thanks Christian. Also a lot of buzz about the LaserWeeder a weed zapping beast from Carbon Robotics. We caught up with director of sales, Brad Westcott.

Brad Westcott:

Hi there. So I'm Brad with Carbon Robotics. I'm the director of sales. What we have with us today is the LaserWeeder and the great part about what we have is it is what the name is, it is a machine that deals with weeds out in field, particularly specialty veg and row crops with high labor costs traditionally for weed control. And it uses lasers basically to pinpoint weeds right at the meristem. And with thermal energy basically destroy that weed's ability to continue to grow through more or less cauterizing all of the essential parts of that weed. It is 20 feet wide, it hooks to the back of a tractor.

You don't need a super big tractor in terms of horsepower to pull it cause it is supporting its own weight when it's not being lifted by the three point hitch. But believe it or not, you need a pretty decent size tractor, with a medium frame, about 150 horsepower to get it lifted for road turnaround. So like a six series is typically what you'd see kind of on the other side hooked up. There's 30 lasers and if you think about lasers, at least the individual lasers, as places where you can make withdrawals on the total amount of energy that you have to spend.

So the LaserWeeder has a certain kind of finite amount of energy and it's a big decent amount, but every time a laser makes a shot, it's making a withdrawal. So this directly correlates to the size of the weed that we shoot. The smaller the weed the better for us because the less time on target it takes actually kill that weed. So we really like to be in the field when weeds are small from that kind of day one emergence up to about 14 days when they're in that two leaf [inaudible 00:17:26] stage, that's perfect for us.

And believe it or not, the computer vision that we have on board that's doing the identification of the crop and the weed, that's a sophisticated part of deep learning and AI software that we developed ourselves that's not just detecting where the objects are, but actually locating that meristem and then determining what species those weeds are that we are locating and determining what specific dosage to give each weed. So we don't even treat each weed as the same as the next based on size. We actually take into account the species. That allows us to put a lot of micro efficiencies into the solution. So at the end of the day, what we're seeing is 80% reduction in costs for growers who are typically used to paying a large hand weeding bill or perhaps maybe a chemical herbicide application plus a hand weeding cleanup.

So there's real dollars and cents out there being put towards a task that with a LaserWeeder could be greater optimized. It isn't necessarily going to be easy on the wallet when you look at the initial sticker shock, but when you start to pencil the cost savings per acre, there's a break even traditionally in there, at least for the growers that we've seen adopting this in less than three years. So save 80% of costs and break even in less than three years, a pretty good deal. So right now the cost of the weeding is typically what dictates who buys one of these things. So if somebody has a high weeding bill today, they're a pretty good candidate for the LaserWeeder. Can it work in a low cost per acre weed control situation like a broad acre barley or a wheat or something? Sure, it's a line of sight problem for us and our computer vision does not need the rows or a specific crop.

We can train the models on new crops, so we could literally shoot in anything. We're crop agnostic, it's just can the grower justify the upfront cost of the LaserWeeder for that task? For right now, we're seeing high adoption in specialty crops, high adoption from organic growers and things like your leafy greens, your spinaches, your arugula, baby leeks, carrots. Right now we probably have about 25 to 30 props that are currently being LaserWeeded by our esteemed customer base. And that number will continue to grow, continue to see ourselves expand into different geographical regions and then hopefully internationally we'll encounter some new things too.

So we're selling direct, and so you can come basically to me and you can have a conversation and what we'll do is we'll really kind of break down what you're currently doing for weed control and look at the kind of fit for our solution. There's a pre-order process. So right now we have a contract manufacturer that's building these things for us. And we have this problem where we have more demand than we have production slots and capability to build a machine that again, has never existed before. It's the first of its time. So what customers are doing is they're basically jumping in line with a pre-order, and that's a 1% fully refundable deposit of the total cost of the LaserWeeder. If anybody would be interested in acquiring one, that's step one. And then there's kind of a process with the long wait time of getting an actual production spot secured with a larger deposit.

Noah Newman:

Thanks Brad. That's going to wrap things up for this edition of the Precision Farming Dealer Podcast from FIRA 2022 in Fresno, California. Before we go, I want to tell you about the Precision Farming Dealer Summit because it is coming up soon. It's going to take place January 9th and 10th in St. Louis. The top precision farming equipment dealerships from around North America will be there for learning and networking. The summit offers a mix of general sessions featuring top industry experts, profit boosting dealer to dealer panels, and also highly interactive round table discussions. It'll be a great experience if you're interested in attending. Registration is now open. Head to to reserve your spot for the 2023 Precision Farming Dealer Summit. Thanks for tuning in once again. Until next time, my name's Noah Newman. Have a great day.