Automation startup collaborates for real-world tests

Courtesy of Future Acres 0927T2-5609A sized.jpg
ROBOT FIELD HELPER: Meet Carry, a compact robot that can act as a kind of Uber or Lyft in an orchard or vineyard traveling to workers to pick up fruit and carry it to field edges. That last-mile tech can reduce worker product transport time significantly, according to the company.
Future Acres will work with Sun World International to put machines on farms to refine its field robot concept

The challenge of any startup is to bridge the gap from lab to field. Future Acres is entering a collaboration with Sun World International to move its robot field helpers into real world testing.

"This is huge for us," says Suma Reddy, CEO of Future Acres. "Table grapes are our initial market, and it's a fragmented industry."

Sun World International is a major supplier of table grapes working with more than 2,000 growers on 55,000 acres in California, Reddy says. "This work will not only be research and development but a pilot of our technology," she adds. The collaboration will start with initial testing and a pilot program at Sun World's International Center for Innovation.

Future Acres first product is Carry, an automated tool for moving wheelbarrows in the vineyard. The compact electric machine can run for nine-hours moving those carriers from workers in the vineyard to predetermined locations at field edges.

Related: Startup to deploy robots for efficiency boost

"Carry is doing what we consider last-mile logistics on the farm," Reddy explains. "Workers spend up to 2 hours per day transporting crops by wheelbarrow, which I recently learned were developed in 231 CE. We're innovating old world technology."

Vineyard workers pick into bins that sit on carts – or wheelbarrows - in the field. When those carts are full, they have to wheel them to the field edge. With Carry, when that cart is full, the robot will travel to the worker where the fruit bins are transferred to a cart. The worker keeps picking, Carry pulls the bins out of the field.

But what sounds simple requires a lot of programming. The system Future Acres is developing involves transmitters on those wheelbarrows the workers use. When they've picked 150 pounds of fruit, a signal would go out to alert Carry to travel to that worker's location to pick up the fruit to take it away. The worker keeps on picking. "Our goal is to be seamless in the operation, they'll not have to drag the wheelbarrow back to work," she says.

That two-hour-per-day savings in fruit transport can increase picker productivity and income. She adds that this approach also boosts safety in the field, especially as more worker rules come into effect regarding climate change. "Walking around with 200 pounds of fruit is tedious and dangerous," she observes.

Field testing robots

The Sun World relationship puts Carry machines into the field where workers and developers can collaborate to fine-tune software to make the machines more useful. Reddy says the concept is scalable for use with other fruits in vineyards and orchards. "That's what's so exciting. With this software it is eminently scalable for different crops," she says.

The key is fleet management and logistics. The field collaboration will allow Future Acres developers to maximize that software and add new crops to the system. "The only thing that would change for other crops might be the height and width of the actual robot we use," Reddy adds.

In announcing the new collaboration, Future Acres explains the link was made possible through its work with a newly added adviser, Stavros Vougioukas, an associate professor of biology and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis. Vougioukas runs that schools research lab focused on mechanization and automation of specialty crop production. He previously worked on a similar project for Sun World, and now works with Future Acres to accelerate their development and unlock key research and development and commercial opportunities.

An interesting opportunity with Future Acres is how the business is being funded. The company has turned to SeedInvest, a crowdfunding platform which allows individuals to invest in this robotics company. Reddy says the company has a goal of $3 million. "We've reached the $1 million mark but we're closing the campaign on October 8," Reddy notes. "There is still an opportunity for more investors join us. That deadline is just around the corner."

You can learn more about the company at futureacres.co.

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