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Rhishi Pethe

123. Let a thousand robots actuate

published3 months ago
7 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.

I want to wish you a safe Halloween celebration and observance of Día de los Muertos.

Now on to this week’s edition.

Let a thousand robots actuate

If you have been following this newsletter, you know I am a big fan of infrastructure.

I love to talk about tools which can be used by application builders.

I love to talk about the possibility of unleashing creativity to build solutions using those tools.

I love to talk about how the right tools and infrastructure can let a thousand flowers bloom!

As a follow up to the recently concluded FIRA Ag robotics event, Walt Duflock wrote about the increase in standardization in specialty crop automation and how it is good news for the industry.

Walt Duflock provides real numbers around robotic product development, but the main thrust of the article is about building standard tools and building blocks, which can be reused by innovators. The “lego blocks” (as Walt calls them) are either commoditized, open sourced, or available at a lower cost due to repeated use.

The cost for an AgTech startup to build their initial product and get it into market are among the highest for any tech segment, and can frequently run $50–100M to get a 1.0 product completed and into market with partners or direct sales teams that can sell and support them so they can get to global scale. Roughly 2/3 of the eventual number is the initial product effort, including both early R&D and Product Development, and the other 1/3 is spent on getting the product into market and into customer fields, often in multiple markets (a requirement because many growers need multiple growing regions to support 12-month product availability).
Given that, the more that can be done to reduce the capital and time required for AgTech startups to get to a 1.0 version of their product, the higher their chances of success. Western Growers is working with multiple partners on a tech stack that can help by producing a set of reusable “Lego style” components that can be re-used by all AgTech innovators (big and small). This will help with reusable image libraries and other key components that are important requirements but are not huge competitive differentiators. This means they can be commoditized and startups can focus on the key areas where there is intellectual property (IP) to be protected and valuation to be captured by the startup.

In edition 112. Agriculture Robotics is difficult AF, I had written about robotic platforms, which make building robotic applications a bit easier and cheaper. I had provided

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 (or lego blocks to use Walt’s language) 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.

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.

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).

Walt’s article talks about 3 straightforward enhancements, which has led to standardization and creation of tools (or lego blocks) which can make it faster and more efficient to build specific end user applications like strawberry or apple picking.

  1. Standardized OS (operating system) options for AgTech startups
  2. Standard implement format for the equipment
  3. Standard image libraries

I do agree with number 1 and number 3 on the list above.

The number 2 (stand implement format for the equipment) is described as,

Startups like Verdant Robotics and Stout AgTech have from launch through development focused on a “back of the tractor” implement format which allows them to leverage tractors that almost all farmers have so they can focus on just developing the machine that does the task.

For example, if you want to design and sell technology to carry some stuff while riding a bicycle, you will not design a brand new bicycle, but design a bicycle carrier.

Right now, the “back of the tractor” does not feel like standardization, but a way to leverage the existing install base of agriculture equipment already out on farms. It is a way to reduce your development costs, and your go-to-market costs, and push for faster adoption of the technology.

The refresh cycles for farm equipment are long (5-10 years at a minimum) and so it is much harder to sell new robotic equipment which is standalone, and has to be purchased new vs. selling a “back of the tractor” attachment.

A back of the tractor attachment will be much cheaper to build, deploy, and support for the attachment provider. Similarly for the grower or the operator, the back of the tractor can be adopted sooner, and requires a smaller financial outlay.

There are many interesting developments in building the tools and infrastructure in agriculture robotics, which should create new robotic applications within agriculture, whether it is specialty or commodity row crops.

More spokes in the hub and spoke model

In edition 95. Hub and Spoke Model for data,

In 1955, Delta was one of the first airlines to introduce a hub and spoke model for air-travel. Prior to 1955, most of the routes for airlines were point to point. The point to point model requires more routes. In a network of n nodes, only n - 1 routes are required to connect all nodes. For a point to point, network n x (n-1) / 2 nodes are required.
For example, in a system with 9 destinations, the hub and spoke model with one hub requires only 8 routes to connect all destinations, whereas a true point to point system requires 36 routes. If an additional destination (node) is added to have 10 destinations, then the hub and spoke model requires only one additional route to connect the 10th destination to all the other 9 destinations. The point to point model now requires 45 routes (so an additional 9 routes) to connect all the 10 destinations.

Image from “Hub-and-Spoke vs. Point-to-Point Data Synchronization: There's One Clear Winner

Within agriculture, Leaf Ag has been pushing the hub and spoke model for data integration and movement across different solutions. Leaf is fast becoming a key part of the agriculture ecosystem infrastructure. As I said at the beginning of this newsletter, I am very excited about tools and “lego blocks” which allow entrepreneurs, researchers, and organizations to focus on their strengths, while letting someone else do the plumbing.

Tools like Leaf and others, can reduce the friction in interoperability. The friction is really a tax on the user experience and innovation. Many organizations (especially retailers and cooperatives) might not have the engineering resources to do many multiple point to point integration to create additional value for their customers or members. ISVs like Leaf can provide a valuable service at a lower cost, and unlock the value of data by getting it at the right place at the right time, based on grower permission.

Leaf continues to add additional spokes to the hub and spoke model.

Leaf has recently formed a collaboration with Intellinair to better serve agriculture retailers and farmers. As part of the collaboration, Intellinair will use Leaf’s operations and boundary services to get data from external data providers. The collaboration improves the onboarding experience for Intellinair users, and helps the organization provide a better service to their customers due to consistent and timely availability of relevant data.

A hub and spoke model has inbuilt network effects. As the density of spokes in a hub and spoke model increases, the value of the network continues to increase.

It seems trivial, but based on my experience, it is an irritating problem which creates barriers to adoption and value realization for their investments for everyone involved, be it the grower, the retailer, or the application provider.

In the News

AgTech and Agronomy

Research from Purdue University shows how technology can add efficiencies in counting plants and assessing early stage crops.

Atticus announces 27 new product registrations in Arizona, where it is challenging to secure pesticide registrations due to focus on environmental stewardship, which limits generic product offerings.

Drones measure avocado tree transpiration to be able to apply less water and produce better fruit.

McCain uses EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient) to calculate the effect of different chemicals and deliver a score to the grower. Arable is integrated with BASF’s digital spray timing tool and leverages EIQ. Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) was devised to determine the environmental impact of most commonly used pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides) in agriculture and horticulture. The values obtained from these calculations can be used to compare the environmental impact of different pesticides and pest management programs.

Robotics and Automation

Red pill or blue pill for weed control in greenhouses?

Three short videos feature 2-D orchards of trees harvested via a self-propelled platform; flying autonomous robots working alongside harvest crews; and AI-directed blades and lasers that zap weeds with impressive efficiency

Supply Chain

Best thing since sliced bread? un(Think) Awakened Flour with germination control in wheat with carefully managed humidity and temperature.

Supply Chain Data gets granular to pilot standards for different carbon accounting technologies

Sustainability

Nori and Bayer partner to aggregate 400K acres of farmland to generate 720K tons of carbon offsets at $ 20 per ton.

Permanent carbon removal by spreading crushed basalt rock dust on croplands

Missouri’s corn and soybean farmers can earn biodiversity credits through ESMC. Last year the average payment was $ 105 / acre for qualifying enrolled land.

Pepsico to continue to its Positive Agriculture outcomes fund to test new regenerative technology or approach and to develop new sustainable landscapes

Smallholder

Indian Agriculture Research Institute has successfully tested two new dwarf varieties — Pusa Narendra Kalanamak 1638 and Pusa Narendra Kalanamak 1652 that give double the yield. (Kalanamak means Black Salt)

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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.