Autonomous Ag at a Tipping Point

When it comes to creating autonomous equipment, developing tech that not only works, but also works in the way that farmers need and want it to, has proven to be more difficult than many technologists anticipated.

The needle to thread is this: autonomous tools must do an existing task, and do so well, quickly, and efficiently, and without introducing extra risks. This applies whether the task is on the ground or overhead, in a field, orchard, feedyard, or anywhere else. 

Achieving this goal has been critical because farmers need to fit autonomous tools into existing business practices. For example, an autonomous harvester is an incredibly valuable idea in a high labor-demand vineyard, but if it damages too much fruit, moves too slowly (failing to pick fruit at the right time), or is too difficult to operate or repair, farmers won’t use it. Similarly, if an autonomous spray drone can’t carry more than a few passes worth of chemistry before it has to be manually refilled and/or refueled, it’s likely that the ease and reliability of the trusty old spray rig will win out.

From our perspective, failing to account for these kinds of functionalities was the failure of “Autonomous Ag 1.0”. We’re excited to see a new wave of autonomy providers emerging who are thinking a lot more critically about both the present needs of farmers, and about how meeting those needs in new ways will springboard their customers into a new, autonomy-enabled world. 

Autonomous Ag 2.0 

In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in the autonomous ag space. For one, autonomous tools are in fields earning their keep all over the world today, and investing in the tech is starting to meaningfully pencil out for producers. In many cases, we’ve moved beyond research concepts and a handful of token pilots.

We got the chance to speak to Kevin McDonald from Guardian Ag on our podcast recently about their autonomous drone product– which was deployed in California’s Salinas Valley this year to support Wilbur-Ellis in its work as the largest aerial applicator in North America. This was not only an excellent example of transformative corporate-startup partnerships, but also a fascinating glimpse into how autonomous technology might reshape the crop protection industry. A crop protection tool that works in a fundamentally different way than existing equipment is ripe for the development of new chemistries and plant genetics, new business models and regulations, and eventually business practices - and economics - that go along with them. 

What might that look like? Consider how technologies might unlock incentives around pesticide usage. Right now, if my business is selling chemicals to farmers– the more I sell (and therefore the more I encourage farmers to use), the greater my return. But in a future where crop protection companies sell risk reduction services, with a shift in focus from product volumes to certainty and quality of outcomes, there would be incentives to use the most optimal, rather than the maximum, amount of chemicals to create the desired result. 

The associated impacts on the farm and environment could be significant; disruptions to the inner workings of chemical companies could be even more revolutionary. Some will partner with, acquire, and/or invest in startups to stave off disruption. Some will become the targets of upstart disruptors or players in adjacent areas who covet their margins. 

These are the opportunities of Autonomous Ag 2.0– and they will reverberate well beyond the farm gate. 

“We shape technology, and then technology shapes us.” 

Beyond simply automating the tasks that farmers do today, we also see tons of opportunities to develop innovative business models that capture more value. As autonomous technology proliferates in every ag sector, from sprayers to tractors to harvesters and scouts, new companies and farm production practices will arise to take full advantage of the new circumstances.

We’re already seeing this happen via SwarmFarm Robotics, one of our portfolio companies, as they’ve released their “dock and refill” capabilities for spray tools. Today, farmers are stuck managing the tradeoff between an autonomous tool that’s big enough to carry enough chemistry and fuel to be efficient, but still small enough to not require an actual pilot. Approaches like the “dock and refill” solution resolve the paradox for both farmers and technologists: it doesn’t matter how big an autonomous vehicle is if it can refill and refuel itself, ultimately running entirely autonomously 24 hours a day. How will that changed functionality affect the way that farmers think about their crop protection strategies? We’re excited to find out. 

Whole new categories of solutions

As growers start to adopt “autonomy 2.0” tools and integrate them into their business-as-usual, we’re confident there will be even more unexpected stores of value that they, and their partners, can tap (or steal from others). 

Now that we’ve finally gotten to a place where autonomous tools are actually being adopted, we can’t wait for what comes next as autonomy continues to reshape global agriculture. 

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Key takeaways

  • Autonomous ag 1.0 was about automating existing on-farm tasks
  • There's a new wave of autonomy emerging that will redefine value chains

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