Burro's collaborative robots are helping relieve farmworkers of their most arduous tasks while building the base for comprehensive automation in farming.
Remember Wall-E, that big-eyed Pixar robot left to clean up trash on an abandoned planet Earth? Well what if we told you Wall-E was currently roaming table grape fields in California helping farmworkers harvest more efficiently? At least that’s how Burro CEO Charlie Andersen likes to describe their robot--Disney’s Wall-E in a 1.0 format for an agricultural setting.
While Wall-E gains emotional intelligence as the movie progresses, Burro will become smarter as it learns about its environment. The idea is for Burros to take on agricultural tasks that are increasingly difficult to hire people to do, thereby improving the quality of farm work as well as financial outcomes for farm owners.
An Industry Ripe for Automation
The $64 billion fruit, vegetable and nursery crop sector accounts for 83 percent of US crop workers. But hiring farm labor, especially in California, has become an increasingly challenging task. This can be attributed to two coinciding trends; there are fewer workers available to hire because of immigration issues and increasingly adverse working conditions, and growers can no longer afford to hire the same number of farmworkers because of new regulations and higher wages.
With 50 percent of farm revenue already going to pay for labor in certain specialty crops such as berries and table grapes, these sectors simply cannot sustain higher labor costs and therefore have a strong incentive to embrace automation. At the same time, the already strenuous nature of farm labor is becoming increasingly onerous with rising temperatures and longer and harsher wildfire seasons. With fewer young people willing to take these jobs, the workforce is shrinking as well as aging.
These factors have resulted in a 40 percent decline in farmworkers in California over the past decade. With farm crews shrinking, automation is necessary to maintain productivity levels and by extension yields.
Currently, one Burro enables a harvest crew to increase productivity by nearly 50 percent giving farm owners a return on investment in less than 2 months. Automation will not only benefit farm owners, but farmworker jobs will become more profitable and less strenuous since workers will be able to produce more with less effort. Burro’s field team is fully comprised of native Spanish speakers, many of whose family members initially came to the US to do the work that they are now supporting with the product.
Once a Farm Kid Always a Farm Kid
The inspiration for Burro came from Andersen’s own upbringing on a farm. He was fascinated by technology and began to think about how machines could relieve farmworkers of some of their most arduous tasks. After getting an MBA from Harvard, Andersen stuck to his roots, going on to work for CNH Industrial in the agriculture division. One of his responsibilities was looking for autonomous companies to acquire but he found that there weren’t many opportunities in the space. Like any natural entrepreneur he jumped on the opportunity.
But that’s not to say Andersen had it figured out from the get go. His initial concept--a robot that would pick up dead chickens--was, by his own admission, a total flop. In 2016, Andersen took part in