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Rethinking the rock picker

Photos courtesy of TerraClear A TerraClear rock picker mounted to this compact track loader
INNOVATIVE PICKER: The TerraClear rock picker mounted to this compact track loader uses tracks like fingers to lift rocks from field to bucket with minimal soil disturbance.
TerraClear announces new round of funding, working to create a new business model around a tough farm chore.

The farm equipment industry has done a fair job of reducing the manual labor in the business of raising food and feed. One farm chore has challenged innovators, while continuing to cause a lot of sweat on the farm: rock picking. But an Idaho-based startup may have the answer.

TerraClear, an applied robotics and artificial intelligence company, is bringing technology to the most mundane and tiring of farm chores. The company recently announced new venture capital funding to help the firm in its mission to create a new business model.

The idea is to create the opportunity for a business that can be an efficient service provider in the world of picking rock. And it started with an innovative tool for getting those rocks out of the field.

The rubber-belted attachment works to grab rocks and pull them into the bucket of a skid-steer loader or tractor loader. Brent Frei, one of the company's founders and CEO, explains he got the idea from the logging industry.

"We saw those big-feller bunchers that grab the log and use knobs to pull it in," Frei says. It brought inspiration to use rollers to grab individual rocks, which worked well to start.

Adds Frei: "We tried a bunch of stupid ideas that weren't good, but it just kept evolving until we ended up with the opposing track system that works incredibly."

The system will pick up rocks as heavy as 300 pounds and pull them into the bucket. It's as easy as working through the field and using the tool to grab rocks and pull them in. The latest version requires a little skill with the controls to actuate the system, but part of the future development will automate that part of the chore.

"The next version of the rock picker essentially works with the touch of a button," says Trevor Thompson, TerraClear's president. "This automation helps operators who are less experienced in driving equipment. It's a lot of fun for anybody to use."

Evolving business model

The company has built the tool for picking rocks, and it joins a host of other innovations for doing the same thing. In tests, this system appears faster than more traditional approaches, but where TerraClear aims to set itself apart is to create a new business around those rocks.

Frei and Thompson envision a business, perhaps with an agronomist before the crop season, or as an added service, helping clear fields. They're using aerial imagery to map those field rocks not only by number but also by size, allowing a user to then enter the field and go right to problem spots.

An aerial map, created by TerraClear, shows rocks of different sizes in a field. MAPPING A PROBLEM: This aerial map, created by TerraClear, shows rocks of different sizes in a field. The farmer can decide which rocks to pick, and then head out, knowing where to start and finish much more quickly than simply roaming the field.

"They're not roaming the field looking for rocks," Frei says. "They can go to where the rocks are, and pick those of a specific size."

A farmer-customer can determine what size rocks they want removed, because not every rock is a header killer. The aim would be to offer this as a service.

"You really see the synergy when you're able to get into these step functions of efficiency," Thompson says. "To not only map the rocks in the field but go right to them and then move on to the next field, and that's where the service model really is exciting for us. The efficiency gain is so tremendous that you can solve the problem for a number of farmers in a short period."

Another benefit of the picker's design that plays into this model is it's less invasive. It's essentially picking individual rocks as a low-impact machine, like a compact track loader, moves through the field. It's not digging, or sifting, through soil on the farm to get the rocks.

Frei adds that this service model might provide a business where the charge is $150 per hour, which may sound high. However, if a farmer's field can be cleared of the big rocks in hours rather than days, it’s time and money well spent. 

A 'Roomba' for rocks

Of course, this is a startup with a tech angle. Beyond the drone imagery for targeting rocks for picking, the company is working on a computer-vision driven tool that would be fully autonomous for rock picking. "We're working every day toward a fully autonomous solution for rock picking — and that is a multiyear project," Thompson says. "Along the way, we're building lower-cost solutions that solve this problem better than anything out there."

In the meantime, the company is working to validate that service model, which was a focus in 2020. "We wanted to know if we could pick fast enough and enough of what [the customer] wants to make it worthwhile to pay for the service," Frei says. "They saw they didn't have to get out of the cab anymore, and it was only like two or three hours for a field to get the problems out. In the end, the farmers told us they never could have gotten it done that fast the way they'd been doing it, and they never want to go back."

Creating value and new business in an area many might ignore has created a range of new ideas from the ag startup business. You can learn more about the company and its picker at terraclear.com.

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