Robotics Plus gears up to Prospr from ag autonomous vehicle market

Published on the 17/10/2023 | Written by Heather Wright

Robotics Plus gears up to Prospr from ag autonomous vehicle market

From early stage high-growth company to commercial player…

“New Zealand has a lot to offer in the agritech space to help solve problems around the world, and developing these technologies here is absolutely doable but it’s about getting your strategies and investment right and having the right people to back you.”

So says Steve Saunders, co-founder and chief executive of Kiwi agritech company Robotics Plus after the company showcased its autonomous modular vehicle platform at a US event last month.

Saunders told iStart the autonomous vehicle market for agriculture is still in its infancy, but the company is keen to capture its share of the multi-billion-dollar market opportunity.

“You will see a quantum leap within the next five years.”

“What we are seeing now is early adoption and with the speed of technology and the comfort that growers are starting to get with these technologies – and just the pure need because we can’t find people to do the job and the cost pressures – you will see a quantum leap within the next five years.

“Then in 10 years’ time, I think it will be quite normal practice to have autonomous vehicles running round your orchards.”

That’s a future Robotics Plus is banking on, having sunk big sums into its R&D and go to market.

“The idea with Robotics Plus was we really wanted to build a New Zealand company and prove the point that we can build world-leading technology from New Zealand and do it from the regions,” Saunders says.

The Prospr autonomous, multiuse hybrid vehicle is designed to carry out a range of orchard and vineyard crop tasks more efficiently and sustainably, while reducing reliance on labour.

The platform has been in development for a number of years, and follows Robotics Plus’ other offerings including the Aporo apple packers and log scalers for port automation. Prospr’s modular form means that while it’s initially been developed for apples and vineyards, it can be expanded into other crops in the future.

“We’ve had a big focus on how we scale this. It’s the modules we can scale as opposed to the specific machine – so we can take the computer brain, the sensor… stack them and add on to another platform that might be wider and lower to do a different crop.

“The reinvestment is more the basic engineering of the chassis as opposed to the huge investment we made into the user interface, software systems, object systems and so on. That’s been our real focus, so we are super excited.”

It’s also designed to be a multi-use platform. While the sprayer – developed in partnership with Croplands – is the first of the tools, Robotics Plus is working with other partners to develop tools including for under-vine weeding, trimming and leaf plucking. 

The fully autonomous vehicle is ‘essentially’ electric, though it is powered by a diesel engine with a generator on it, Saunders says. That’s down to current issues with electric batteries where the technology hasn’t reached a stage where it can provide the long operational hours required once a load is added to the equipment. 

Despite that, Saunders says Prospr can provide 70-72 percent savings in diesel consumption. 

When battery technology improves, the company will swap out to fully electric, or alternatively if biofuel or hydrogen prove to be cleaner fuel, Robotics Plus could convert the diesel engine to hydrogen or biofuel, he says. 

The sustainability angle is a key focus for the company, with Saunders noting increasing sustainability desire and pressure on the agriculture sector. But it’s just one push alongside reducing the number of people required in operations, given ongoing challenges finding tractor drivers, increasing efficiencies and managing costs, and a desire to remove people from spray zones. 

Prospr operators can manage four machines from the edge of the orchard, and automation also brings a sense that you can fix the cost – while robotic components and parts might increase in price, it’s probably not at the same rate as hourly, minimum and overtime rates are increasing, Saunders says.

With Prospr just launched, the company has plans to roll out the first 20 machines this financial year and scale from there. Manufacturing is done in Tauranga in New Zealand, with the company working on one machine a week and scaling up to two machines a week as it goes through its market plan. Manufacture of the sprayer will be transferred to Croplands. Other tools will also be made by partners as they come online. 

“Our view is that the toolmakers make the tools, we make the platform. That’s how we partner,” Saunders says.

As demand grows, Saunders says more final assembly may be done in the final destination market, noting that New Zealand has one of the most expensive stretches of water to go anywhere, making freight a challenge – and a determining factor.

“What we might seen in the future is more final assembly in market. That may make sense where we can send parts, components and pre-assemblies of the machine to market and just assemble in market.

“We are looking at all those processes for future. But at this point we are pretty comfortable with where we sit and manufacturing here.”

Saunders acknowledges agtech is a hard area to develop technologies. 

“Agriculture is a long game, not a short game. It’s not like we’re selling iPhones to a million customers. We are selling a few machines to big customers so it takes a lot of work, a lot of time in market really understanding the customer pain points,” he says.

“It’s really important that you are not building a technology to find a problem to solve, you’re actually building tech to solve a problem. You’ve got to run the models to make sure this kind of technology is going to make sense from an ROI.”

Addressing the customer side is one thing. A second part, as an early stage high growth company, was finding the right investor – one that is patient about the long game, rather than seeking quick returns – says Saunders, who has been a grower for 36 years.

The company has received US$10 million investment in recent years from Yamaha Motor Co.

“We are spending lot of R&D developing the product and as we transition to Prospr now being a commercial product we have got supply chain, manufacturing, support and service – all these other large aspects of the service that we have to gear up and work. 

“It needs lot of capital when you’re building hardware.”

The company has a 60-strong R&D development team in its New Zealand team of 115 staff, and Saunders says it’s looking at how to add more data and analytics to the offering.

“We see that as a significant piece of the puzzle. We have a lot of sensor technology, cameras, lidars, there already, it’s what other technology can we add to the machine to get further information.

“We have developed a very sophisticated compute system to enable us to process that huge amount of data. But it’s working with customers to understand what data is really important and can provide actionable insights, rather than just being data for the sake of having data.”

The first machines have already rolled out to vineyards in Blenheim, with the company eyeing up the North American and Australian markets, where it already has ‘good relationships’.

Saunders says from day one Robotics Plus has had a global focus. 

“We knew if we could make it work in big markets like North America that would create the scale to give us the ability to deliver into our own market at a more affordable price. 

“We absolutely want to solve New Zealand problems, but we have to create scale to do that.”

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