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 the AgSharks Competition, a pitch competition run by S2G Ventures and Western Growers aimed at identifying and investing in key innovations in the fresh produce market. At the time Andersen’s concept for a farm robot was still not fully formed and he didn’t make it through. Luckily he wasn’t deterred. Two years later, after quitting his job at CNHi, moving to Philadelphia and finding two co-founders, Terry Scott and Vibhor Sood, to join the team, Andersen returned to AgSharks with traction and a story to tell. Hailed as the “comeback kids,” they walked away with an equity investment from S2G along with access to farm acreage for pilot testing to bring Burro to market.
Burro started zeroing in on table grape fields after Andersen got in touch with the California Table Grape Commission which represents the entire industry. They had been looking for a company to build the type of autonomous cart that Andersen was proposing. “In a way they were almost pulling us into their industry and selling us on the idea of building a product there,” he says. Today Burro has 90 robots in table grape fields running 5 to 6 days a week. Instead of each farmworker walking 2 to 3 miles a day with a 300-pound wheelbarrow full of grapes, they can stand in the shade and harvest in a continuous flow.
Starting as a Cart with Vision
Burro is a journey of automation in labor-intensive, high-quality industries. The Burro that exists today is an autonomous collaborative robot that uses computer vision, high precision GPS and AI to follow people and navigate from A to B while carrying various payloads. Since it is very data inquisitive, the robot is able to understand the world at ever greater levels of granularity the more it runs. This continuous learning is also essential for the kind of unpredictable environment in which Burro is operating: a complex world involving many people doing different tasks outdoors with other equipment and machines coming into play.
Until recently, robots were mostly constrained to warehouses and factories, performing repetitive tasks with little variability. Many companies building autonomous platforms outside of these constrained environments rely on LIDAR, which uses extremely expensive lasers to produce a depth-rich view of an environment. The emergence of low cost stereo cameras in recent years has enabled very adaptable, and simultaneously far more affordable, autonomous technology. A stereo camera is a type of camera with multiple image sensors which simulates human binocular vision, giving a robot the ability to perceive depth. These cameras, coupled with GPS and other sensors feed an AI-heavy software stack that enables Burro to produce platforms that are both economically attractive, and increasingly capable of taking on tasks people have to do today.
But while the autonomous space is certainly getting a lot of attention, few if any agricultural autonomy companies have taken the same approach as Burro. Most companies are either trying to automate large pieces of equipment such as tractors or working to build something that automates one fairly specific task. But Burro works alongside people from the get-go and is designed to be used without any expertise in operating autonomous machinery. Burro refers to this novel and patent-pending approach as Pop-up Autonomy, which means the robots work immediately out of the box, anyone can be an operator, and there is no need to command things centrally or install infrastructure.
The fact that Burros are already in the field has not only enabled the company to build relationships with growers and grow revenue, but it also has allowed the team to incorporate feedback from field workers and constantly iterate on their design.
A Small Robot with Big Plans
With a new round of funding secured, Burro plans to expand their fleet next season, enabling expansion for both existing and new accounts. They also plan to drastically expand their team.
While Burro today is an autonomous table grape cart, Burro tomorrow will be able to collect, interpret and act upon data around crop ripeness/yields health disease, weeds, and pests. And while Burro is currently tackling the agricultural sector, there are countless applications for these robots and the company is eventually looking to capture the 1.2T in US outdoor labor most susceptible to automation.
The potential for this product to transform the social, environmental and economic outcomes of the agricultural sector are essentially limitless.
“The beauty of our approach is that we can scale today around a ubiquitous pain point in the most labor-intensive areas of agriculture, while also allowing our platform to capture data and learn about many environments - providing the foundation for us to scale to countless other applications.”
- Charlie Andersen, CEO, Burro