This robot makes light work of a gruelling task
Is Autopickr top of the crops?
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There has been a lot of fear over the years about technology taking people’s jobs. But if there are no people available that want to do a job in the first place, tech should have a wide-open opportunity, right?
That’s what today’s startup is aiming at. Scroll down to read all about Autopickr.
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Autopickr’s robot makes light work of a gruelling task
You don’t see many people harvesting wheat with a scythe these days, do you? A combine harvester does the job far more effectively.
While some crops have been harvested with machines for a long time, others are just too delicate for anything other than a good old-fashioned human harvest.
But that’s starting to change. Autopickr is an example of a field of robotics where startups are looking to automate harvesting for a wider range of crops.
The Cambridge-based startup has created Gus, a lightweight robot on wheels, which uses computer vision to collect asparagus. Over time the plan is to expand into other crops.
“Asparagus doesn't sound particularly exciting, but the asparagus industry is facing serious labour shortages,” explains co-founder and CEO Robyn Sands.
“The cost of picking the crop is actually 60% of the total cost of production. So the struggle with the labour there is really impacting them. Also because of the way in which it grows, it needs to be picked every day. So [the current labour shortages in the UK agriculture market] are particularly hard on the asparagus industry.”
So demand for automation is there, but because asparagus grows in rows, it’s also a simpler first challenge for the computer vision tech than some other crops might be.
“We're using an RGB computer vision system, which we can do because asparagus is kept well weeded as a crop,” says Sands. Weeds can act as distractions for computer vision in agriculture.
“The weeding is done prior to the season, which means you have fairly clear asparagus spears against the background. We have depth sensors in our cameras so we can detect how far away they are and how tall they are and check that it’s not a weed.
“It sees the asparagus and it comes along and picks it. It sounds very simple but the hard part is doing it quickly and efficiently enough to match a human being.”
The story so far
Autopickr has its roots in Sands’ time as operations manager at her father David’s robot arm company, ST Robotics. She had a side interest in agtech and, having grown up in largely rural Norfolk, was aware of the labour shortages crop farmers faced.
“I spent a lot of time as a teenager throwing beetroots around on a conveyor belt and doing these sorts of manual, tough jobs. We like to romanticise them in British culture; we'd like to think that we're going to be skipping through a field with a basket picking fruit, when actually it's an absolutely gruelling job.
“The power of automation, in my opinion, is to free up humans from these kinds of tasks. So it became fairly clear to me that these arms fit very well in agriculture.”
So Sands conducted market research and figured out a back-of-a-napkin plan in 2019. During the Covid restrictions of 2020, Sands and her father put together the business plan, securing grant funding that allowed them to hire engineers to get to work in the spring of 2021.
With their first product in the works, they spun Autopickr out of ST Robotics as a separate startup, with Sands taking the CEO role and her father as co-founder and senior scientific advisor.
“They are co-founders of the company, and they took us from a small workshop with a prototype product to a spinout that was investment-ready,” says Sands.
“I'm not from this world, so they've really been showing me the ropes. They helped me learn to pitch and offer their expertise on lengthy investment paperwork and valuing the company.”
Gus, the Autopickr robot, has been out conducting (literal!) field trials ahead of paid beta trials in spring 2024. A full commercial rollout is planned for 2025.
As grateful as asparagus farmers might be for Autopickr’s offering, the startup is going to have to expand to handle more crops if it’s going to excite investors. That’s very much on the roadmap, Sands says.
Flowers like daffodils and long-stem roses are one opportunity on the startup’s radar.
“The UK produces 80% of the world's daffodils. And the industry is unfortunately heading the same way as the UK asparagus industry unless something serious changes, such as automation, that can help these growers keep their costs down and keep expanding instead of shrinking as many of them are now.”
And Autopickr is working to expand the functionality of its robot. They’re working to implement grading: sorting asparagus by quality as they’re picked.
“When we pick the asparagus, we know exactly how tall it is, we know how wide it is, so there's no reason we can't also be grading them at the same time as we're picking them,” says Sands.
She’s also on the lookout for agtech companies to collaborate with, combining their technologies to mutually bolster their commercial offerings.
Autopickr is currently gearing up for further product testing and demonstrations during the autumn. This run of tests will focus on how Gus copes with the mud and adverse weather conditions that are common at that time of year.
Go deeper on Autopickr
Much more on their funding, vision, competition, and challenges: