While acute labor shortages and growing food production demands have exacerbated the need to implement autonomous solutions on the farm, with North America accounting for the largest share of the agricultural robots market in 2020, barriers to adoption and scale-up remain. We asked key OEMs, start-ups and investors in the sector what innovations in ag robotics they’re excited to see in 2022 and beyond, and what’s needed to scale this adoption.

“I’m excited over how quickly robotics is accelerating in agriculture! 10 years ago, when I started Blue River Technology, we were pretty much the only company working on robotics. Not anymore – here are a few things to show how far we’ve come:
• Every Ag OEM has multiple robotics efforts. There are perhaps 100 start-ups in robotics now.
• John Deere is now shipping the first fully autonomous tractor by an OEM!
• Cameras, GPUs and AI are in thousands of machines being used by farmers – in everything from sprayers to harvesters. They help farmers save in inputs, increase their yields and do a better job than they could.” Jorge Heraud, VP Technology, JOHN DEERE

“For the near term, I am most excited about harvest aid robots like Burro and Future Acres. These robots augment human work, are affordable, and are available now. They are able to do things like run up and down the rows of table grape pickers to carry picked grapes so workers don’t have to leave their job. They will also be used as platforms to gather more data and to build onto. Like fitting a harvesting robotic arm onto the robot. I’m excited about replacing the dangerous and dirty jobs in ag work and allowing workers to do the more skilled labour. Funding and scaling are a big challenge for robotics. World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit - Speaker - Vonnie EstesRobotics for field use takes more time to develop (longer timelines) and costs more money to get to scale than most traditional VC funded start-ups. A number of ag robotic companies have run out of time and money before they can get to market. We need to help companies look at alternative early funding like crowd funding, non-dilutive government grants and family offices with longer fund windows.” Vonnie Estes, VP of Technology, INTERNATIONAL FRESH PRODUCE ASSOCIATION

“In a context where farm productivity is expected to double in the medium term, where there is labor shortage and the desire to spend time in more value-added activities, robotics and autonomy are set to disrupt the farming operations with an increasing number of customer solutions soon to be commercially ready. Given the significant value creation opportunity, the interest across the ecosystem is significant and CNHI is uniquely positioned to partner with both founders and VCs to help scale solutions leveraging its global presence, agronomic knowledge and farmers trust. Our recent partnerships with Monarch and Augmenta prove how through a collaborative and innovative approach founders can receive capital, know-how and access to a leading industrial and commercial footprint. Those partnerships truly embrace an ecosystem collaboration approach that enables the start-ups to focus on innovation and shape our industry.” Michele Lombardi, SVP Corporate Development, CNH Industrial

Founder and CEO of Precision AI“Robotics are the next great revolution in farming. With labor shortages and supply chain challenges becoming a chronic problem, the push towards automating many of the manual processes in food production is paramount. As technology matures and becomes more robust and cost effective, we’re primed for an explosion in agricultural robotics. Of course, autonomous robots that can execute at field scales require a lot of capital to build, and even more to deploy. Yield outcomes are essential, and new technology requires a long learning cycle to repeatably and reliably generate farming outcomes. Financiers need to understand the cycles will be long and the capital requirements massive, but farming is one of the few industries in the world where the lifetime value of the customer is inter-generational – so the reward is proportionately high.” Dan McCann, CEO, PRECISION AI

“We are most excited about how robotics and autonomous technology can help agriculture overcome its biggest challenge – producing more food, but with less impact. One incredible area of opportunity is this space is the potential to drastically reduce chemical use on the farm, with more precise application and solutions that reduce chemicals all together. But to reap the benefits, as an industry we must find ways to produce robotics at scale and make them affordable for farmers of all sizes. We believe businesses with access to data inside the farm gate will be the ones to lead this transformation for farmers.” Britaldo Hernandez, CEO, SOLINFTEC

What do the investors say?

Seana DayAcross production systems, I am seeing incremental adoption of workflow and automation technologies. Automation of repetitive tasks in production plants, where vision systems and sorters are automating the laborious (and often subjective) QA/QC process. In the field, simple tasks can take a lot of time and robotics companies are stepping in to solve these less complex workflows. Spray automation can be a more skilled job that requires not just uniformity, but significant overhead with certifications, liability exposure, health concerns top of mind. It’s great to see this being solved with both autonomous equipment as well as precision spraying with UAVs.” Seana Day, Partner, BETTER FOOD VENTURES

“I want to see more innovation in Ag and robotics in 2022. Investors have long been hesitant to invest in automation and robotics, particularly automated harvesting technologies, given long R&D lead times and the highly capital intensive nature of the category. However, in field automation and robotics remain the number one requested technology from farmers we speak with as they seek to increase yield and combat tight labor markets and rising minimum wage. Many ag technologies tend to be consumer driven and pushed down the supply chain – in these instances, we see farmers slower to adopt – but in field automation and robotics are farmer-driven and we are seeing strong adoption and farmer willingness to help drive innovation in this category.” Scott Porter, Managing Director, CASCADIA CAPITAL

“There are a number of products moving forward in development promising to meet the increasing demand in the marketplace driven acutely by labor shortages and the need for increased cost efficiency beyond labor. I would expect funding will continue to flow from venture investment, growth investments and strategics. One of the key differentiators for attracting investment is the ability for growers and processors to easily and successfully implement the technology as promised into an integrated system that works. Far too many investment opportunities are point solutions with difficult implementation at a system level.” Steven Bierschenk, Managing Director, PAINE SCHWARTZ PARTNERS

 

Vonnie, Jorge, Dan, Scott, Seana and Steven will take on the main stage to share more insights at the summit this March. Join them and delegates at Yahama Motor Ventures, Cambridge Consultants, CNH Industrial, Western Growers and more.

Connect with the teams and discover latest projects via the exhibition and networking breaks. See the full program at www.worldagritechusa.com/agenda , and register now to secure your access.