Labor remains a top challenge for specialty crops, and it’s getting harder to find. U.S. farmworkers decreased by 70 percent in 70 years, regulatory costs increased 795 percent in 12 years, and U.S. H-2A labor increased from 48,000 in 2005 to 300,000 in 2021—which add transportation and housing costs. Innovation remains the best solution to turn manual tasks like planting, weeding, thinning, harvesting and spraying into automated tasks with mechanization and automation.
So what does the market look like in early 2023? Weeding is the leading robot category for the moment. Carbon Robotics, Stout AgTech and FarmWise are all delivering solutions that provide growers with quality economics. Carbon Robotics has raised $36.8 million and has a one-year order backlog for $1.4 million laser weeding robots that break even at two years or less with 3,000–4,000 acres of production. FarmWise has raised $65 million and is in multiple regions with a weeding-as-a-service option that is price competitive with labor crew economics. Stout AgTech just got a 10 percent investment from CNHI and has sold over 25 mechanical cultivators for around $350,000 each, and its machines can also return a payback to the grower of less than two years. In addition to these, Verdant Robotics just raised $46 million and Naio just raised $33 million, so increasingly the segment is finding capital to help scale out the number of robots in market.
Harvest Assist is also beginning to scale. The best use case for this is Burro, which helps table grape crews by increasing their logistics efficiency by moving harvested product back to the truck via use of an autonomous small platform tractor. The efficiency gains are often 15-30 percent and provide growers with a 6-12 month payback depending on usage and acre count. Burro sells $10,000 robots and has over 100 robots in market with plans to manufacture several hundred more in the coming year.
Spraying automation solutions are one of the emerging areas approaching quality grower economics. GUSS is one of the early leaders offers GUSS sprayer machines for vineyards and orchards, a smaller Mini GUSS for easier turning in smaller fields and Herbicide GUSS. Also delivering an on-the-ground spraying solution is Robotics Plus, which launched in the U.S. market this quarter. Both appear to offer quality economics for growers. In addition to GUSS and Robotics Plus, Rantizzo offers a drone-based spraying solution with competitive economics to tractor-based spraying options.
On the other hand, harvest robots are still in the relatively early stages of product development, testing and roll out. Harvest is proving to be harder to develop than weeding because each crop requires its own robotic solution and the end effectors that pick the fruits and vegetables have to be significantly more gentle with them then weeding robots, which can just destroy weeds. None of the harvest robots have yet gotten to scale, and most have raised $25 million or less (as compared to the weeding robots, which as mentioned above, have been successfully fundraising over the past couple of years.)
So that’s the state of play with specialty crop automation—if you’re looking for weeding, harvest assist or spraying solutions, there are good options with good economics available. On the other hand, if you’re looking for harvest robotics, keep an eye out for emerging players but they are likely a few years away from getting to market at scale.