January 18, 2017

Robots in the Field

I just got back from the Frontier Tech Forum in San Diego which featured a fascinating track on robotics. “RoboUniverse” spent a full day (out of two) talking about robotics in agriculture from the point of views of the technologist, investor and agricultural industry.  These events are important opportunities for Western Growers to develop knowledge and networks to assist our members in mechanizing select operations within agricultural enterprises.

We all know that labor availability has become a significant limiting factor within the specialty crop sector.  We cannot begin to address the question of how we will “feed more people” without perfecting a stable reliable workforce for the specialty crop sector.  To date, the principal focus has been on policy change to allow more (legal) immigrants into the United States to fill jobs within agricultural operations that our own citizenry do not want.  That work must continue.  But if those efforts are successful, will they in fact “future proof” the sector from other trends—like an aging workforce and improving economic conditions in source countries?  Each of these trends is reducing the traditional pool of workers such that even wide open borders may not afford American agriculture the labor it needs for the long term.  Compounding the shrinking and uncertain pool of labor are new regulations that dramatically increase the cost of labor, which is sometimes 60 to 70 percent of total production cost.

So there is a solid case for mechanization.  What is holding back the advance of the robots?  Scale, money, fit and state of the technology are key contributors to what seems to be slow progress in the specialty crop sector.

First, because it is always top of mind for everyone, let’s talk about money and scale because they are related.  A few million dollars in investment might yield a solid robotic lettuce harvester, but if you are only able to sell 25 of these harvesters in the United States how do you convince a major equipment company to invest in the research and development?  This is not your next smartphone or tablet, so you won’t sell one to every farmer in the country.  Scale is likewise important to the traditional venture investors, who are looking for a double-digit return on the investment when they sell off (exit) their equity.  If the startup can’t demonstrate ability to scale, it is hard to get to that merger, buyout or IPO (initial public offering).  This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of the venture investors are looking at shorter term horizons (3-7 years) when in fact ag may take longer to broadly adopt expensive new technology.

Adoption brings up the topic of “fit.”  Many of the robotic and mechanical solutions to the problems of ag labor (at least historically) don’t work within existing crop production systems.  At RoboUniverse, a producer bemoaned the fact that his entire operation might be totally automated replacing 20+ workers forever—but to do that he would have to build a new facility from the ground up for tens of millions of dollars.  Tough call!  Smart folks have been coming to producers for years with harvest technology that works only when you reconfigure your farm, grow the crop differently, come up with different plant architecture etc.  These technologists need to think about how to mechanize within the existing system—and to be fair—agriculture needs to think more about how we might reconfigure operations to facilitate mechanization and automation.

Finally, there is the “state of technology.”  Robotics are advancing rapidly but there are many players, many approaches and much duplication of effort—some of which breeds healthy competition.  In harvesting, one needs to move, see, select, grasp and move again.  At its most basic, the component technologies that go into accomplishing these tasks include vision and imaging systems, locomotion, manipulation and machine learning.  Some of these are much farther along than others.  Perhaps the most challenging is “grasping” something.  Whether in a facility or a field, duplicating the dexterity of a human hand seems a long way off.

None of these are insurmountable issues.  Western Growers, through the Center for Innovation and Technology is committed to working up, over and around these issues to advance mechanization in the specialty crop sector.  The Center will continue to work with anyone who has technology that may be beneficial to the specialty crop sector but in our coming years of operation we are focusing on solving problems in a few key areas.

Helping to alleviate the ag labor crisis is a top priority for Western Growers.  To do this, we need a “moonshot” approach and are seeking the best and brightest to collaborate directly with industry to knock down the key barriers and develop equipment that will automate labor-intensive operations in the field.  I invite you to join us as we seek to develop a strong team of growers, engineers, technologists and others who are committed to solutions and encourage you to contact me directly to get involved.

Contact me at [email protected] or call me at 949-885-2205.