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New autonomous orchard sprayer borne of necessity

A spray business’ rig became so popular that the company began selling it commercially.

Tim Hearden

March 9, 2021

4 Min Read
A GUSS sprayer works its way through a California orchard.GUSS

The GUSS automated orchard sprayer isn’t the brainchild of your typical ag-tech startup.

While many new companies in the rapidly growing technology space are Silicon Valley professionals or university graduate students who’ve come up with an idea to help agriculture, this machine’s history is different.

GUSS – which stands for Global Unmanned Spray System – was created by the Kingsburg, Calif.-based Crinklaw Farm Services, which had been providing agricultural spray services to West Coast growers for more than 30 years before the machine was ready for work in 2017.

“We have the largest ground spray rig business in California for trees and vineyards,” said Gary Thompson, a partner in the business. “This whole GUSS project came about because of our own labor challenges. We were unable to find enough tractor drivers.”

Dave Crinklaw, who founded CFS with his father, Bob, in 1982, assembled a team to work on a driverless spray rig. The device was in development for three years before the company began using it in late 2017.

“Then we really started getting a lot of interest from people wanting to purchase them,” Thompson told Farm Progress. “It motivated us to get into manufacturing and sales, so we did that in 2019 and delivered the first units to customers in December 2019. Ever since then we’ve been putting out about one a week.”

Sprayers in customers' hands

So far, the company has 76 of the machines in customers’ hands, Thompson said. The machines are spraying mainly almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans and citrus in California and Arizona, along with some citrus in Florida and almonds in Australia, he said. CFS also still contracts with growers to spray up to 5,000 acres a day during peak season, according to its website.

“I think the biggest testament to me to what we’re doing is, last year every customer we sold to placed a second order,” Thompson said. “Typically after running the machines for about 3 months, they said, ‘Wow, these do exactly what you said they would do.’”

The company is now developing a smaller machine for vineyards and the high-density apple plantings in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

“It solves all the right points for growers,” Thompson said of the GUSS sprayer. “It’s kind of the reason we developed it. It’s mainly the shortage of labor – that’s what it always comes back to, especially with spraying trees. It’s very challenging because it’s mostly at night, it’s long hours of driving 2 miles an hour and … working with chemicals.

“It’s very tough to hire for that position to begin with,” and now hiring is more expensive with changes in overtime and minimum-wage laws, he said. “When it’s time to spray, it’s a minimum of 12 hours a day if not more. It was becoming burdensome on these farmers to pay that kind of overtime.

“Then there’s the whole safety factor, too, because you’ve got all those chemicals,” he said. “There’s always the potential for exposure. GUSS gets rid of so much of that.”

Combination of latest tech

GUSS uses a combination of GPS, LiDAR and the latest technology to autonomously roll through the orchard spraying each tree with precision and efficiency row after row, according to the company. A single employee can monitor and operate up to eight GUSS machines from his/her vehicle while the nurse trucks supply the spray product when GUSS signals for a refill, company leaders say. The machine costs $285,000 to purchase, Thompson said.

Mike Carr of Five Star Farm Management, Inc., in Linden, Calif., says he has found success with the GUSS machines.

“GUSS has had a major impact on my farm by allowing me to do more with less,” Carr said. “We get more acres done every shift due to less stopped and downtime. My dependency on labor and all the challenges that come along with it has greatly decreased. In my opinion, GUSS autonomous sprayers are the only way to go moving forward.”

The sprayer’s ascent comes as growers and farm groups are looking to automate more farm tasks amid labor shortages and rising input costs. Western Growers and three West Coast land-grant universities recently launched parallel initiatives to automate specialty-crop harvests.

GUSS Automation is continuing to develop technology with plans to automate other farm tasks.

“I really believe this is kind of the next industrial revolution,” Thompson said, noting the automation that’s occurring in large processing plants. “It hasn’t quite happened out on the field level yet. That’s what we’re kind of leading the charge on, doing it in the field.

“The big tractor companies have done a great job of making machines that are bigger, with more horsepower, more implements and less people” needed to do the work, he said. “Now the next step is let’s do the work without the people.”

To see GUSS in action, visit gussag.com.

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