July 8, 2019

WGCIT Sponsor Yamaha Identifies Ag as Major Growth Market

For decades, Yamaha Motor Company has been involved in innovative research, searching for technology to improve their core products as well as to find solutions for vexing problems. That effort led to the development of the Yamaha Motor Ventures and Laboratory Silicon Valley, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the parent company and an entity devoted to providing entrepreneurs with a strong partner to help scale their businesses

The venture group has identified agriculture as a major growth market, which makes its sponsorship of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology a natural fit. Nolan Paul, partner and AgTech leader for the group, noted that Yamaha has been involved in technology and agriculture for almost three decades. The firm started in 1991 as it worked with helicopters in the rice paddies of Japan to offer production help to farmers.

Paul, who worked on emerging technologies in Driscoll’s research and development department for five years before joining Yamaha, said specialty crop work is one of the primary focuses in the ag space for the company. He said the company believes there is lots of room for advancement automating specialty crop production in both harvest and post-harvest arenas.

He listed three startup companies that Yamaha is currently involved with that offer promise in automating sectors of the specialty crop industry. Robotics Plus is doing lots of work with unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in such areas as moving goods, spraying crop protection tools, harvesting crops and data collection. Soft Robotics is a firm working on developing a pneumatic gripper that is showing promise automating packing house operation. Still another of its partners is Abundant Robotics, also working on automating packing operations.

Paul said these efforts are not just pie-in-the-sky pursuits. He said they show promise and he expects the specialty crop industry to undergo profound changes now that the need is there to find solutions to industry problems. He said it is a matter of fact that the industry did not need to adopt new technology in past years so it didn’t. It is need that drives change. California and Arizona, he said, have great climate, great soil and labor was cheap, so growers, shippers and packers didn’t have to innovate.

But times they are a changin’.

Paul believes changes in cultural practices will also be part of the solution as it is much easier to develop new technology when there are changes in production techniques as well. For example, in the strawberry industry growers are experimenting with growing the berries up off the ground on tables, if you will, which allows for easier harvesting. Apple growers are training their tree branches to grow on trellises which allow for easier picking by robotic arms and grippers.

Of course, he noted that the “value proposition (of new technologies) has to be very, very clear” if it calls for dramatic changes in cultural practices. Paul does not believe that agriculture will be slower to change than any other industry once the technology and value has been proven.

He said labor is the industry’s number one problem and he suspects labor-saving solutions will be the main driver of change. “In specialty crops, I do believe there will be a big shift in how crops are grown” to facilitate the new technology. And he believes there will be much change in the next five to 10 years.

Paul said the partnership with WGCIT has been a good one for Yamaha as it has given the venture group access to industry members and a lot of great information.