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Rhishi Pethe

112. Agriculture robotics is difficult AF

Published almost 2 years ago • 15 min read

“Software is Feeding the World” is a weekly newsletter for Food/AgTech leaders about technology trends.

Greetings from the San Francisco Bay Area.

I am a techno-optimist and believe technology will play a crucial role in solving some of the most pressing problems facing food and agriculture systems, including climate change.

Policy is plagued with politics, and often too slow to address what is needed. This is an interesting visualization about the trend in atmospheric CO2, global temperature change, and different global policy proposals overlayed on it.

Sometimes policy makers surprise you.

Last week the United States Senate announced a compromise deal and a path forward with a package which includes “a suite of clean energy tax credits for commercial and emerging clean technologies as well as other key emissions reduction investments.” The package is smartly named the inflation reduction act (IRA), and is about economic growth (or is it?).

A preliminary study estimates,

IRA can cut US net greenhouse gas emissions down to 31% to 44% below 2005 levels in 2030 compared to 24% to 35% under current policy. The range reflects uncertainty around future fossil fuel prices, economic growth, and technology costs.

Image source: Rhodium Group

Technology and innovation will play a key part. It is important to understand some of the challenges to innovation and adoption.

Today’s edition will look at agriculture robotics, and how innovation can accelerate.

Analysis: Ag Robotics is difficult af

One of my favorite fictional robots is Marvin, the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Marvin is incredibly smart, has a "brain the size of a planet" capable of extremely complex mathematics, can solve difficult problems and operate high-tech devices.

Despite being so smart, Marvin is typically made to perform menial tasks and labor such as escorting people, opening doors, picking up pieces of paper, and other tasks well beneath his skills. Due to this, Marvin is extremely frustrated and depressed.

If we compare the current state of robotics to Marvin (albeit a fictional robot), it reminds one of the 2013 lament by Peter Theil

They promised us flying cars, but all we got was 140 characters. (Tweets back then had a 140 character limit)

Strawberry picking (if you are going to pick a basket or two) can be a fun activity. The process of picking strawberries by hand, with your kids, can be a fun activity. The weather is great, you are out with your family, and you get to eat fresh strawberries, which you picked moments ago.

But picking strawberries at scale, and picking them consistently requires practice and skill. You have to judge if the strawberry is at the right ripeness for picking, grab the stem, twist it, and put the strawberry in your basket, without bruising or damaging the strawberry. Human beings are good at following the process to find strawberries with the right ripeness, grab the stem, twist it, and put it in a container.

Try to build a robot which can do the same job with human or better efficiency, and it is difficult af.

We desire Marvin, and we get a slow version, compared to Marvin or a human strawberry picker.

Picking strawberries using a robot is a very specific application. It requires hardware to “see” strawberries, software logic to decide which strawberry to pick, to move an arm to the right spot in 3D space to cut the stem of the strawberry, to position the basket correctly, and to cut the stem. The robot has to do it fast enough to make economic sense.

It is expensive and difficult to build a hardware and software system which can meet strawberry picking requirements.

Tortuga has developed a bot to save on labor for picking hydroponic strawberries. Picking strawberries using humans is an expensive activity, as growers have to pay up to $ 35,000 per year in California (UC Davis study), which amounts to 40% of the total cost per acre for a strawberry operation.

Tortuga sells a subscription model with a flat cost per robot picked box of strawberries at a rate comparable to human worker wages. Today the Tortuga robot goes as fast as a slow human, but it could get to human speed in the near future. The biggest bottleneck today is skill sets required to service and operate the robots, manage their downtime etc.

Now take the same agriculture robot to pick apples, and it will be more depressed and frustrated than Marvin from Hitchhikers. The strawberry robot has no chance to pick an apple as apples grow on trees.

The example above highlights some of the challenges with the development and adoption of agriculture robotics technology.

Building an application specific robot is expensive and hard, but the application of the robot can be limited due to the diversity of applications needed in agriculture. This limits the size of the business of application specific robots. Due to this, it is difficult to raise VC funding as the total addressable market of the application is limited.

In a recent Agtech So What? Podcast by Sarah Nolet covered the three categories of agriculture robotics autonomy. The three categories mentioned were:

Brand new equipment or after-market attachments

Brand new equipment for row crop or aftermarket attachments for existing equipment to satisfy certain use cases like see & spray etc. This space is currently dominated with investments from incumbent OEMs. For example, investments made by Deere in See & Spray, acquisition of Raven, and Blue River.

Application specific agriculture robots built by startups

Startups building application specific agriculture robots have struggled.

For example, Abundant Robotics (mentioned in the podcast), a Hayward, California based agriculture robotics company was founded in 2016. It focused on robots picking apples. The company was shut down in 2021, as it was unable to develop the market traction necessary to support its business during the pandemic. The company raised a total of $ 12 million over 5 years.

Abundant said it has a,

host of IP, including a large body of vacuum manipulation patents (and patent applications), a patented sensory system to allow the vacuum to navigate obstruction, a patented world-class vision system for identifying fruits and their quality, and several software patents for the machine’s automated operations (including a solution to solve for “doubles” that enables the machine to pick multiple fruit at once.)
According to the company, they excelled with its top-end vision system, which accurately and quickly identifies optimal routes for the picking arm through voxel mapping (3D imaging) and, in conjunction with hardware, assesses each apple’s ripeness and quality before picking.
By using an expansive collection of imaging data and software, the vision system is able to detect not only which apples are ripe, but the specific ripeness level of each apple.
The apple harvester was able to harvest one apple every two seconds. The company estimated its machine could reach between 50-90% of fruit on trees. The system is designed to augment human labor and could allegedly pick apples every two seconds. Abundant said it was targeting a pick rate of 1.5 seconds for the commercialized version of the robot.

The company planned to broaden the type of fruit it picked in the future.

The company’s product expansion strategy (from their liquidation memo) is highlighted below. The strategy called for solving the apple harvesting problem to a certain degree, and then move on to other tree fruits (for harvesting) and then other operations like thinning, pruning, and spraying.

Robot platforms

Robot platforms provide generic robotic capabilities for hardware and software, without building application specific capabilities. Building robot platforms is equally hard, as your customer is not the end user of a particular application but the application developer for that application.

Platforms are incredibly powerful as they provide the tools to rapidly build other applications. Imagine how difficult (and inefficient) it would be, if to make accounting software, you had to design and build computer hardware, and an operating system to run on the hardware, before you got to building your accounting software.

There is not a plethora of sophisticated platforms and tools to choose from, especially in agriculture. According to the podcast guest, Andrew Bates (CEO),SwarmFarm Robotics is building a platform (a set of tools and capabilities) to help application developers focus on building their application.

So what does a robot technology stack and operating environment look like?

Robot operating environment

Let us begin with a simple schematic diagram of the hardware and software for a robot, and how it interacts with the environment.

Schematic by Rhishi Pethe

The sensor and the actuator are the hardware components of the robot, For reference, a sensor could be a camera or a vision system (in the strawberry and apple examples above). The actuator is the hardware component performing an action (in the strawberry example, it is the robotic arm with scissors to cut the stem of the strawberry).

The Sense, Plan, and Act are software components of the robotic system. The Sense component in our apple and strawberry example determines the ripeness of the apple or berry, and other attributes like distance, angle, obstructions etc. The Plan component creates a plan based on Sense whether to pick the apple or berry or not. The Act component acts on the plan (pick the apple or berry, and move on to the next fruit or move on to the next fruit).

Robot technology stack

There is another way to look at the technology stack for a robot. This is an overly simplified version, but the schematic will be helpful to understand how to think about robot platforms from a technology standpoint.

The schematic shows hardware at the bottom of the stack, with software layered on top of it. For the software component, as you go from the robot operating system up to robot applications, the capabilities become more specific to the application at hand (for example, picking fruits).

Schematic by Rhishi Pethe

The first robot specific layer is the robot base libraries & services layer, as it contains functionality independent from concrete robot applications. It provides generic capabilities like path planning, navigation, and localization.

The top most layer is the most application specific. This is the layer that defines what the robot is actually doing, i.e. picking a strawberry or an apple.

Building a set of generic tools and generic hardware like robot arms, cameras, etc. and having them work together for a set of basic capabilities is not trivial. It is harder to build a business to begin with, as you need a longer cycle of investment, to build the generic tools. Adoption can be harder as you are not solving an end application problem (for example, picking apples), but have to find application developers and help them accelerate their technology and innovation process.

I had illustrated a similar point last year in edition 83 (picks and shovels), between application and tools, and how they create value in the longer term.

As you go from left to right on the X-axis, the offering is more like a tool, rather than an application. As you go from bottom to top on the Y-axis, the value per unit (or customer) is higher, as you control the user experience and provide specific value, though the number of customers is lower.

We see similar development in the field of robotics, especially agriculture robotics.

For example, last year Raven acquired DOT Technology Corp. (CNH acquired Raven late in 2021)

DOT is the developer of the “Dot Power Platform,” an autonomous power unit that has the ability to pair with a wide range of implements which are critical to agricultural production and will offer a variety of labor saving solutions to farmers and Ag Retailers alike. Fusing DOT, and the recently acquired Smart Ag® autonomous perception and path planning technology, with our core technology platforms in guidance, steering, and machine control enables Raven to deliver revolutionary autonomous solutions and greatly accelerate our long-term growth in Applied Technology.
DOT created an autonomous power unit, and abstracted it out to work with a range of implements. This could accelerate innovation on the implement side, as the implement developer can focus on the end application rather than spending their time on an “autonomous power unit.”

A more recent example on the software side is a Y-combinator startup which came out stealth mode just a few days back. Polymath Robotics has launched plug-and-play autonomous software for any industrial vehicle.

Robots used in warehouses, mining, agriculture and other industrial environments have hyper-specific applications that are structured and are often repeated thousands of times. In other words, the farmer in Iowa, the yard truck operator in Florida and the e-commerce giant with 100 warehouses spread throughout the country have specific needs that no one else does.

Polymath Robotics have developed, (emphasis is from me)

A plug-and-play software platform and an accompanying SDK* that allows companies to quickly and cost efficiently automate industrial vehicles. Think of it as SaaS for industrial robotics.

(An SDK is a software development kit, and it makes it easier to build software.)

The Polymath Robotics software platform lets another startup, warehouse owner, farmer or mining company skip the often long process of building out autonomy, a safety layer and front-end app.

(Note: The article mentions a farmer, but it will be another technology company who will use the software platform to build tools for farmers)

The video below shows how you can use the Polymath Robotics platform, create simulations, and then push the code to work in actual physical environments. (I am oversimplifying this, but the concept is still true)

One of the investors in Polymath Robotics said,

All sorts of business come to Oracle for hardware and software solutions for their business, and with minor configurations can plug it into their business. If you project forward 10 to 15 years where can this end up its an enormously audacious goal, but I think it can also continue to provide value all along the way.

(Oracle was an early pioneer in relational database technologies, and continues to be an important player in the technology industry.)

Will companies like SwarmFarm Robotics, Polymath Robotics, Sabanto, and others move a lot of the smarts in smart machines to software? Would it be possible to build cheaper and smaller hardware, powered by really smart software? I had explored this question in edition 89. (Android of agriculture),

Majors like Deere can follow an Apple approach with high end hardware, and software under their brand. They will service the high end large scale row crop farming in the developed world.
Is there space for a generic sub-$10K tractor, where the hardware is more or less a commodity, and the software on it is what makes it interesting and more useful? There are many types of operations depending on crop type, and so there might be different hardware configurations.
Could some manufacturer provide hardware in large volumes at low cost? Can a strong software and technology provider provide an equipment operating system, with room for application developers?

I am personally excited about the development of software and hardware tools, which can potentially accelerate innovation in agriculture applications of robotics, and create value.

Technology Trends

Break down the silos

“Silo” is an interesting word in agriculture. In farming, a silo is used to store grain or feed. It is the outcome of significant sweat and hard work on part of the farming team.

In the context of organizations or technology, “silo” is not a good word. It indicates teams not collaborating with each other, or information trapped in different places, and not flowing freely. “Break down the silos” is a common refrain heard in the corporate and technology world.

The talk of silos is common in the context of the food and agriculture value chain. For example, traceability or COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) are examples to break down the information silos between different food and agriculture value chain participants.

Telus believes there is value to be unlocked by breaking down the silos between different value chain participants. Telus has gone on a technology acquisition spree over the last few years, to address different parts of the value chain. (The inimitable Shane Thomas of Upstream Ag Insights did a great write up on the Telus stack in December 2021)

Telus has now rebranded its agriculture division to Telus Agriculture and Consumer Goods to,

Deliver data insights and a wide range of integrated digital solutions to customers beyond the agricultural sector”
It will now connect participants across the entire value chain, from seed growers to food and consumer goods retailers, driving data-driven business decisions to minimize costs and waste. The company says combining agriculture with consumer goods will “harmonize data” and deliver real-time “actionable intelligence” to decrease food waste before groceries even reach shopping baskets.

Currently, more than one in five Telus Agriculture & Consumer Goods customers are manufacturers of packaged foods, beverages and products. The news release talks about reducing food waste, but there are a variety of other possibilities by breaking down the silos. The three below are a small subset of a significant number of examples.

1. Connecting a food CPG company with a seed input company to breed seeds with a specific set of characteristics for the end food product.

2. Supply chain risk management for grocery retail or CPG companies by understanding what’s happening at the first mile on farms.

3. Product differentiation for CPG companies based on sourcing decisions or management practices. Fair trade chocolate or coffee, organic cereal, or regenerative organic certified wine are some examples.

Telus is following a horizontal integration strategy across the value chain, whereas Nutrien is following a vertical integration strategy for input products.

Biological & biotech investments - Gingko, Bayer, and Enko

With increasing challenges of herbicide resistance, nutrient runoff from chemical fertilizers, biological products have been a ray of hope. Unfortunately for biological products in agriculture, the bark has been bigger than its bite. (If you want a deeper dive on biological products, you should read the article published by AgThentic in 2021.)

Bayer will be the first major partner of Ginkgo's expanded agricultural biologicals platform, entering into a new collaboration focused on the advancement of Joyn's marquee nitrogen fixation program, as well as new programs in areas such as crop protection and carbon sequestration.
As part of a three-year strategic partnership, Ginkgo will provide research services to Bayer in the field of agricultural biologicals with the potential to earn downstream value in the form of royalties on net sales from products developed under the partnership.

From a business model standpoint, my conjecture is that Bayer will fund some percentage of the product development costs, and Gingko will do a revenue share with Bayer down the line on the commercialization of products. This is a standard arrangement, when new products are being developed jointly with a potential go-to-market partner in the future.

Enko, which uses machine learning based discovery technology and predictive analytics to find new modes of action for crop protection, raised $ 70 million in funding from investors like NuFarm.

Enko’s platform can screen billions of molecules to assess how they would impact crops, weeds and pests, and identify potential toxicity issues. Enko will use the new funds to advance its product pipeline of crop protection chemistries that target critical pests and weeds through novel pathways.
To move the industry forward amidst stalled R&D, Enko is collaborating withSyngenta andBayer on promising new chemistries. Enko's target-based approach has generated its industry-leading discoveries in roughly half the time and with fewer resources than conventional R&D methods.

Similar to the agriculture robotics platforms, I am excited and optimistic about these biological platforms.

In the News

AgTech

No one-size-fits-all in farming operations “Ease of use and quality of life may be even more important to a farmer than an economic ROI” !!!

Why Bosch is more important than Haber or scaling challenges at Beyond Meat

Five main paths to autonomy in agriculture - report from Tech Hub live - Auto steer, connectivity, cab automation, supervised autonomy, full autonomy.

Gingko acquired Zymergen for $ 300 million, a company once valued at $ 3 billion around its IPO a few years back. This is the largest acquisition by Gingko so far.

Billionaire Tom Steyer bets on weather stations with investment in Arable Labs

There’s so many different things we need to do better in agriculture in terms of both using the land more productively, but also using water, fertilizer and pesticides much more carefully,” “If you can’t measure those impacts and manage it using the information, then you’re doing everything by the seat of your pants.

Fun fact: Arable CEO Jim Ethington and Arable CRO Vilas Rao are my ex-colleagues. Best of luck!

Syngenta’s partnership to provide advanced high resolution mapping to farmers in Eastern Europe.

First, the soil is scanned with gamma-ray detection technology by SoilOptix® to map all of the common nutrient and physical soil properties and physical soil samples are collected. The raw scan, soil data and soil samples are then combined and processed to produce up to 27 high-definition soil property layers. Growers have easy on-the-go access via a digital platform to view the results in a unique soil properties map and develop variable rate application maps for their crop input applications.

Smallholder segment

Crop2cash offers Nigerian farmers a pathway to inclusion and no smartphone needed!b78% of Nigeria’s farmers are not registered with formal financial services. Crop2Cash offers simple financial accounts linked to an e-wallet where farmers can receive payments, make purchases and track their financial transactions. The system runs on USSD, making it accessible to farmers who don’t have a smartphone.

Tanzania increases rice export exports with improved seed, better irrigation and processing infrastructure.

Adopt more orphan crops - The global food system stands on the pillars of three crops: rice, wheat and maize, which together account for 50% of the world’s consumer calories. Orphan crops may be breeders’ best option in producing climate-hardy crops. Instead of starting with more “elite” crop species and breeding them to create a hardier crop, scientists could start with an orphan crop, already more tolerant to inclement conditions, and create a crop with good potential for “large-scale growth.”

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About me

My name is Rhishi Pethe. I lead the product management team at Project Mineral (focused on sustainable agriculture). The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.

Rhishi Pethe

Agriculture and Technology or AgTech

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