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If the 2022 World Ag Expo is any indicator, the future of agriculture is robotic

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
Burro CEO Charlie Anderson stands with the company’s namesake invention, an autonomous vehicle guided by artificial intelligence that can transport fruit through an orchard or nursery.

More products than ever offer autonomous features and artificial intelligence.

The three-day World Ag Expo just wrapped up in Tulare with a thousand exhibitors and more than a hundred thousand estimated attendees. And this year, more than ever, those loud crowds were drawn to robots.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
Each year, the World Ag Expo draws more than a hundred thousand attendees to the International Agri-Center in Tulare.

Right across from the 35-foot-tall wind machine, between the Toyota Tundra hoisted 100 feet in the air and the peach cobbler stand, an orange robot about the size of a refrigerator has gathered an audience. “Oh my gosh, this has been awesome. The people on the street just stop and stare, like, what is this thing,” laughed Anna Haldewang.

Haldewang is the CEO and founder of InsightTrac, and the Midwestern company’s self-driving rover has been programmed to take aim at almond trees and shoot out the “mummies”—the brown and shriveled carcasses of almonds. “During the almond harvest not every almond is ready to be harvested, and once those leaves fall off the trees in the winter, those leftover almonds then turn rotten,” she said. If the mummies aren’t removed, pests like the navel orangeworm can burrow in and ruin the next season’s harvest.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
InsightTrac CEO Anna Haldewang stands in front of her company’s mummy remover.

Typically, said Haldewang, knocking mummies out of almond trees is the work of farm workers known as polers. “They take 15-foot bamboo sticks and they hit and they poke these mummies out of the tree. Really back-breaking work,” she said.

Instead, InsightTrac automates the job. The mummy removing rover rolls through orchard rows and, like a tiny orange combat tank, it’s equipped with little turrets that shoot the mummies right out of the tree using biodegradable pellets. Each shot produces a sharp popping sound, much like the tiny “bang snap” fireworks that kids can throw at the ground.

The mummy remover’s key technology isn’t radar or LiDAR, but computer vision. It’s a form of artificial intelligence in which computers use cameras to interpret the visual world. “We have trained it through thousands and thousands of images to identify what a mummy is and what it isn't, and so we have depth-sensing cameras on it that are able to accurately shoot those mummies,” Haldewang said.

It’s the same technology used by the Israeli company Tevel Aerobotics. At Tevel’s booth at the expo, a pair of bright blue boxes producing a high-pitched buzzing sound are hovering over the ground and plucking candy red apples off a tree. Despite what they look and sound like, Moshe Porat says they are definitely not drones. “We are not developing drones, it’s something called FAR – it’s Flying Autonomous Robots,” he said.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
Moshe Porat with Tevel Aerobotics stands in front of two Flying Autonomous Robots after they’ve picked apples off a tree.

Porat is a marketing exec with Tevel and he says, unlike drones, their FARs don’t need operators. Each one has been programmed to spot a ripe apple, extend a robotic arm equipped with a suction cup, and grab it. Then, it drops it gently into a bin on another autonomous vehicle. All of this is completely automated—no humans necessary. They’re also tethered to a mother unit that supplies electrical power, eliminating the need to change FARs’ batteries or recharge. “You don't need to be a pilot, you don't need to be familiar with drones, nothing. It's for dummies,” Porat said.

So far, FARs have been programmed through computer vision to pick apples, stone fruit and citrus.

Autonomous and smart vehicles seem to lurk in every corner of the expo. There’s all manner of weed management products like the LaserWeeder, a Zamboni-like machine that uses 30 lasers to zap weeds underneath it. “A process called lysis basically means the cells are exploding from energy, and that causes the cell walls to pop or explode and all the intracellular fluid leaks out. The plants are basically dead at that point,” said Paul Mikesell, CEO of Seattle-based LaserWeeder developer Carbon Robotics.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
The autonomous vehicle known as GUSS (and its cousin the MiniGUSS) can be programmed to spray pesticides along a preprogrammed route.

And let’s not forget pesticide applicators like GUSS and mini-GUSS, sleek stainless steel vehicles reminiscent of Tesla trucks that spray pesticides along a programmed route. “One guy is going to operate up to eight of them at a time. He sits in a truck, has a laptop computer, and he's just monitoring the sprayers,” said Gary Thompson, CEO of Kingsburg-based GUSS Automation. “So you get him out of the environment where there's chemicals, the potential for exposure to that.”

The sheer number of robots, autonomous vehicles and products designed with artificial intelligence was a surprise even to Marcus Herrera, who led a seminar at the expo on autonomous functions in ag. “It’s shocking, I thought that I knew of most of it and then I just got blown away with so many more products and systems and features that are being showed,” he said.

Herrera is a sales application engineer with HYDAC Technology Corporation, and he says these products have tons of potential. “Just in terms of productivity, it’s huge, and then also in terms of safety,” he said. For instance, many products are being designed to take on the more laborious and risky aspects of farm work, like hitting trees with long poles and applying pesticides. “The more and more machines are getting smart and helping us more with our job, the more we can focus on other things possibly that are going on around us,” he said.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
As part of a demonstration, Carbon Robotics’ LaserWeeder zapped these wooden tokens with the same energy it would use to kill weeds.

Many of these products also aim to solve the problem of labor shortages. Data from the USDA shows the farmworker labor force has declined around 20 percent in the last two decades, a challenge growers have been reporting during the pandemic.

But while this new technology may help farmers, what could it mean for the laborers in the field? Herrera said it’s possible that the adoption of autonomous vehicles could simply shift farm worker specializations away from manual labor and more toward managing machines. However, although few companies say they aim to replace people, Herrera says eliminating farm worker jobs altogether is certainly a possibility as these technologies advance. “With the average minimum wage costs going up, and the amount of work that that takes, all these features are saving the farmer money by not having to hire other hands to do work for them,” he said.

But there was at least one autonomous product at the expo that aims to aid farmworkers. It’s a “collaborative robot” named Burro, the Spanish word for donkey. “In principle, this product is Disney's Wall-E for agriculture in a 1.0 format,” said Burro CEO Charlie Anderson, whose company has offices in Pennsylvania and Kingsburg.

Their product is essentially a self-driving table that tags along in the fields, and its touchscreen interface is entirely in Spanish. Workers can stack their trays of fruit on it, and it can be set to follow people or travel between them. “So if it loses somebody or if somebody walks away for a second, it’s kind of like a good dog, it’s grabbing the next person,” said Anderson.

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Kerry Klein
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KVPR
Burro’s touchscreen interface is programmed entirely in Spanish.

Rather than replace people, the company’s strategy to ease labor shortages is to make the job less onerous. Anderson points out that Burro can increase productivity as well by saving farm workers the trouble of pushing a cart or wheelbarrow by hand over sometimes uneven ground, and it can hold more weight, which could eliminate the number of trips workers need to take to the weigh stations. “That basic principle can be applied into table grapes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, nursery crops, and a whole other host of crops where you've got people working in rows or common areas,” he said.

All of these products are in varying levels of development, some still in the prototype stage and others commercially available and being used in real time. As for whether any of them could become ag game-changers, Marcus Herrera says only time will tell. But he says it sure is an exciting time.

An earlier version of this story misstated Paul Mikesell's title at Carbon Robotics and the company's relationship to the LaserWeeder.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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