Crops don’t grow themselves and in the U.S., the labor needed to support the agricultural production is increasingly hard to come by. But agriculture is also an industry that is ideally suited for automation, something Igino Cafiero and Aubrey Donnellan recognized when orchard owners in California expressed interest in their company’s autonomous technology. Pivoting from mining to agriculture, Bear Flag Robotics now develops autonomous technology for tractors and just announced a $7.9 funding round that will help it expand even further. According to a report by Global Market Insights, the demand for autonomous agricultural machinery will exceed 3 million items and will account for a market size of $ 180 billion by 2024.
Cafiero says Bear Flag’s mission is to increase global food production and reduce the cost of growing food through machine automation. The technology isn’t designed to replace farmworkers, but rather to free them from hours spent confined to a tractor cab and give them the time to focus on other revenue-generating tasks around the farm. “One major advantage of Bear Flag is that we can leverage the top operators at a farm by empowering them to operate many machines at once,” Cafiero says.
While the tractors are running autonomously, human supervisors use Bear Flag’s software to monitor and command their fleet from a remote mission control room or personal device. Operators at Mission Control have real-time information about everything happening on a tractor, from engine health to time-to-completion. In addition to real-time telemetry, Mission Control operators also have access to real-time 360º live video feeds. This means that no matter what happens in the field, operators will be able to take control of the situation. Software plans optimal field patterns based on growers’ implements, and provides predictive and post-run analytics. Additionally, paths can be optimized for time to completion or increased implement overlap, giving operators total control.
Cafiero also touts Bear Flag’s ability to meet safety challenges. Tractor overturns and transportation incidents are the leading cause of death on U.S. farms. As Cafiero explains, “we are removing people from hazardous environments.” Bear Flag Robotics also uses state of the art technology to give tractors redundant 360° situational awareness. The company says its tractors are able to monitor their environment with a superhuman ability, seeing and tracking objects no single human operator could. In addition to safer operations, Bear Flag technology also monitors implements and tractor health, ensuring that faults are quickly relayed to the operator
Equipment outfitted with Bear Flag technology routinely runs for many days straight, only stopping for refueling or moving between fields. From the early stages of development, the Bear Flag team recognized the challenges of integrating advanced computing power into equipment designed to work in dusty and damp fields while being exposed to a wide range of temperatures, weather hazards, and significant vibration. Bear Flag’s technology leverages edge computers for processing perception data from radar, lidar, and various cameras, as well as other localization sensors.
Bear Flag is currently working with some of the largest produce and commodity growers in California and Arizona. The company will be going into a second season with many of them, according to Cafiero. The new funding will enable the company to increase its fleet of tractors and grow its engineering team. Tractors can either be bought or rented, with Bear Flag charging for the technology per acre. You have to see some of the video footage of the tractors in action HERE and learn more from their website HERE. (Sources: CrunchBase, New York Times, OnLogic)