Autonomous vehicles are becoming more and more the brilliant object of Silicon Valley. But the occasion is not limited to cars circulating the streets of a large metropolitan area, and Igino Cafiero and Aubrey Donnellan hope to take it somewhere a little less obvious: in the middle of nowhere. an orchard.
Cafiero and Donnellan build a standalone tractor as part of a start-up called Bear Flag Robotics. They argue that it is increasingly difficult to find enough manpower to work on farms and, even in this case, the costs continue to increase over time, which leads to increased efficiencies in the field and new technologies. like satellite imagery and computer vision to analyze plant health. The first product for Bear Flag Robotics is a stand-alone tractor, and the company will come out of Y Combinator's winter class this year.
"We visited an orchard and how much the labor problem is pronounced," Donnellan said. "They have trouble filling the seats on the tractors.We talked to other producers in California.We always heard the same thing: work is one of the most painful points.C & # 39; is really hard to find quality work, the workforce is aging, they are leaving the country and going into other industries. "
There are certainly a lot of technical challenges to overcome, not just having the right artificial vision products in place to create a stand-alone tractor. For example, tractors must be able to operate without a GPS signal, said Donnellan, simply because using a tractor in an orchard can mean driving with a ton of forest cover – which could block the signal. It may be a bit easier to find your way into an orchard, but there is still a lot to consider, she said.
"We have this platform that we have plugged a ton of sensors," said Cafiero. "That includes the cameras.When we look to the future, once we have automated the driving part, the sky is the limit in terms of using this technology once it's available When we are there, we can use these cameras, and be able to make recommendations and spot treatments on the ground. "
As for testing, Cafiero and Donnellan go to an orchard in Sunnyvale a few times a week to see the challenges facing producers.
Although finding work has been a challenge, Cafiero acknowledges that there are always issues around undocumented work when it comes to working on these farms. He said, in the end, the goal of Bear Flag Robotics is to increase manpower by removing some of the most mundane tasks required on the fields. Cafiero also said that there was a lot of reverse immigration from the United States, resulting in a shortage of manpower.
"The work itself is really hard work," Donnellan said. "You're in the field all day, sometimes in adverse conditions, one of the things we're automating is spraying, fungicides, herbicides, and those people over there, they're wearing combinations of dangerous goods." It's not good for their health to do these tasks in general.When you are introduced to high-paying jobs in other areas, there are fewer cases for this job, and there is a demand in many of these jobs. Other industries such as construction [and other industries] where work is easier and better. "
Selling the real tractor can also be a challenge, simply because potential customers will buy their equipment from salespeople they know. If something goes down, they need someone to come, in person, as soon as possible to fix it or risk losing performance. And major equipment suppliers can also see the need to start working on standalone tools. The hope of Cafiero is that the startup can work with local sellers and enter these channels, and that is the only logical place to start. There may be a goal of increasing the size over time, but the company hopes to start with local dealers for now.