Technology for Sustainability's Sake

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6/26/2024

Technology SustainabilityBy Graham Thompson, Director of Business Development, Bluewhite  — 

Our mission is to build resilient farms by maximizing productivity and reducing operational costs. It is remarkably fulfilling to be part of a mission with such clarity, where customer needs and pain points are so evident, partnering is vital, and technology delivers above and beyond.

The data-driven autonomous farm is no longer a vision, it is a reality. By fusing AI technology with advanced autonomous capabilities, agricultural machinery can execute sophisticated tasks more efficiently than ever before, even in GPS-denied environments, bringing new levels of productivity, quality, safety, and sustainability to the high-value crop production system. 

Understanding The Problems

Producing healthy fruits, nuts, and vegetables is crucial to the USDA’s focus on food and nutrition security. With a growing global population, the demand for these crops is projected to exceed production. Growers face immense pressure to produce more food economically while reducing environmental impact. They are faced with increasing labor costs, labor shortages, rapidly rising input costs, changing weather patterns, stifling regulations, declining commodity prices, and eroding margins.

California accounts for nearly 70% of the U.S. fruit and vegetable production, yet due to labor shortages, less than half of the tractor-driving positions have been filled in recent years. Operating machinery on these farms is hazardous, with agriculture experiencing one of the highest industrial accident rates in the U.S., leading to lost time, increased liability, and greater overheads for the growers.

Perennial crops, such as fruit and nuts are vulnerable to numerous pests, fungi, and weed pressure. The production expense of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides has increased 66% from 2020-2023. For growers, these costs pose the biggest risk to profitability in a margin-thin production system. Compounding these pain points, the growers of high-value crops do not have the same level of holistic machinery and precision ag. solutions available to them that other production systems have. High-value crops bring a level of complexity far beyond that of broadacre crops. Orchards, vineyards, and vegetables require varying row widths, bed widths and heights, crop canopies, and unique seeding, planting, crop care, and harvesting requirements. This drives ‘niche’ complexity to the architecture of the machinery solutions. Tractors and implements are often basic and lack the electrical architecture required to adopt and utilize precision ag. capabilities. This complexity has left the high-value crop production system behind in the journey from automation to autonomy. This is where numerous start-up companies are stepping in to develop, partner, and deliver tailored solutions to meet the grower’s needs. 

Unleashing the Solution

Since our founding in 2017, we have committed to bringing the vision of the data-driven autonomous farm to reality. We serve an increasing number of growers in California and Washington, equipping basic tractors with cutting-edge, autonomous capabilities. This enables growers to use their existing assets. The kit consists of a front sensing module, including cameras and LiDAR, a rear communication module, including LTE and 5G, an onboard edge computer, controls for steering and tractor function, and an operating platform for fleet operation and reporting. The after-market kit is adaptable to fit any make or specification of tractor. The autonomous tractor is only one piece of the puzzle. Open APIs and partnering with implement companies and crop analytic providers are vital to providing connected, holistic solutions for growers. 

Autonomous technology also uses the tractor’s LiDAR to sense where and how much to spray, with high efficacy and significant chemical reduction. The operational data is used for grower reports and actionable insights through an agribusiness ecosystem for spray traceability and compliance. The after-market autonomous capabilities can be used for multiple tasks, spraying, dusting, mowing, and disking, and tractors can be used in manual mode for those tasks that are not conducive to autonomous operation, providing complete flexibility for the grower.  

Autonomous operation addresses the core challenges that growers can control. It reduces the dependence on labor but also provides job upskilling opportunities. It brings consistent, high quality, and even 24/7 operation, enabling the growers to complete the critical time-sensitive windows in less time, with fewer machines, and at lower cost. Growers can now monitor and execute farm operations from afar, keeping a distance from chemical drift, exhaust fumes, noise, temperature extremes, and heavy farm equipment. Remote and automated control capabilities allow growers to focus more on big-picture strategy and address more pressing issues across the farm. Together, we are enabling farmers to grow more with less, providing a technological path to long-term economic and environmental sustainability.

Graham Thompson is the Director of Business Development for AEM member company Bluewhite, a company that equips existing fleets with autonomous technology, an easy-to-use platform, and end-to-end service; supporting their journey to a more profitable and sustainable farm. For more information, visit bluewhite.co.

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