When Anna Haldewang attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, she never considered that a foundational course in industrial design would change the course of her career, take her around the world or help her snag a prestigious award at a leading event for agricultural robotics. But that’s exactly what happened. First, the pollination drone concept Haldewang created as a school project went viral worldwide. Then, people started asking for a prototype.
Haldewang delivered at a Forbes’ Agtech Summit in Salinas, California. She built her design around a toy helicopter she purchased off Amazon. The product demonstration was simple, but it impressed the group. Almost immediately, Haldewang began fielding questions about when the flower-pollinating honeybee drone was coming to market. She told them “two years’ time,” consulted with a well-known farmer in her home state of Indiana and quickly got to work.
Plan Bee was born in 2017. Almond farmers quickly became the company’s primary customer base. Because the crop must be pollinated by bees—a process that can be expensive, time-consuming and unreliable—almond farmers were heavily invested in robotic alternatives. Plan Bee initially worked to produce pollinating drone prototypes to meet this need, but that didn’t last. Instead, Haldewang’s extensive conversations with almond growers prompted her to found a different company called InsightTRAC and take it in a new direction.
“I really got to know the growers and the almond industry through customer interviews,” says Haldewang, who is also InsightTRAC’s CEO. “When I was out in California, I was speaking to a grower who was complaining about mummies and navel orangeworm. And I said, ‘I think I can figure this out.’ So, I pivoted from pollination to winter sanitation in 2019, and we've been in development since.”
Today, InsightTRAC serves almond growers in California and Australia. The autonomous rover not only provides robotic removal of navel orangeworm-infected almonds (aka mummies) that remain on the trees after harvest, it also collects and shares in-depth orchard data to help farmers effectively manage their crop going forward.
This is a big deal. Navel orangeworm is a major problem on almond crops—one that damages nuts, decreases yield and revenue, and has the potential to cause devastating fungal infections. InsightTRAC’s rover works to solve the problem by controlling the pest before it begins wreaking havoc.
“During the almond harvest, not every almond is ready to come off the tree,” Haldewang says. “In the wintertime when the leaves fall off, those leftover almonds turn rotten, and they're called mummies. The pest lays eggs that are born inside them. In the spring, the pest will emerge as a moth and damage the quality and yield of next year's crop. So, the best time to remove the pest is when it's at its weakest and not flying around.”
Traditionally, almond farms managed the sanitation process by hand or shaker. Workers would beat the trees with poles to remove the mummies and grind the fallen debris into the earth. Done this way, mummy removal requires a lot of time, energy and costly manual labor. It also is a task that is wet-weather dependent if performed by a shaker.
The InsightTRAC robot tackles the majority of these issues in one fell swoop. Using sight-tracking and machine-learning technologies, the rover navigates through a row of the orchard, stopping every three, five or 10 feet to scan a section of the trees. It then identifies the mummies and shoots them off the branch using a biodegradable pellet, removing them in less than a second. Once the mummies are off the tree, they can be ground up. This vastly reduces the amount of labor needed for the task overall while still eliminating the pest for good.
InsightTRAC boasts other benefits, too. The robot runs on four batteries with a backup generator that automatically kicks on for 30 minutes when the batteries get low and require a charge. This system allows the rover to work 24 hours a day. Designed with durability and fickle weather conditions in mind, InsightTRAC is built on tracks that enable it to work rain, shine or in the fog. The machine has also been shown to achieve the industry standard of two or less mummies per tree, making it an ideal alternative to manual labor.
Put altogether, InsightTRAC caught the attention of the expert jury assembled at World FIRA 2023 in Toulouse, France. The jury, which included Future Farming editors, robotics specialists and farmers from across the world, considered 16 candidates for the Best Ag Robotic of the Year award. The initial group was whittled down to five finalists before the machines were judged on five criteria: Originality/technical breakthrough, feasibility/market readiness, potential to impact farmer’s life, ease of farmer uptake and sustainability.
In the end, the InsightTRAC rover beat out AvL Motion’s Compact S9000, Exobotic Technologies’ Land-A2, Naïo Technologies’ Jo and Nexus Robotics’ La Chèvre to snag the top honor. Haldewang was pleasantly surprised.
“I was really honored to be considered and recognized,” she says. “I got to know FIRA late last year through their agtech event in California. I signed up to attend, and when they saw me sign up, they asked me to be a speaker on one of their panels. It was a really fun day where I got to be on stage with other agtech startups. Things really snowballed from there.”
When pushed to speculate about which features helped InsightTRAC stand out from the competition, Haldewang had a few thoughts.
“We’re definitely one of a kind,” she says. “We’re the first to market with anything like this, and we’re solving a real problem within the industry. We’re reducing labor and helping growers with a huge pain point. Weather is a big problem when you’re trying to fit in all your farming activities. You can’t predict it, and it’s out of your control. Our product really helps with this because you can send it out regardless. Farmers don’t have to worry about the impacts from the weather.”
Haldewang also believes that InsightTRAC’s data collection abilities should not be understated. As the rover navigates the fields, it creates a heat map of where the mummies are located. Farmers not only see where the problem is most pronounced, but also how the number of mummies in the area changes over time. This helps farmers identify patterns and make necessary changes.
“It just provides another piece of the puzzle for the grower to help them with their practices and to have a successful yield,” Haldewang says.
Right now, growers interested in adding InsightTRAC to their operations have two options: purchase a machine outright or purchase the robot as a service. Haldewang says that most farms opt to buy their own, as it is more cost-effective in the long run, but some smaller operations prefer to pay for the service through one of InsightTRAC’s third-party vendors. For the moment, the company plans to continue serving almond growers in California and Australia. Haldewang, however, foresees plenty of room for growth.
“What's great is we do have growers who contact us and say, ‘Well, what about this crop or this crop? Do you think it'll be able to do this?’ and then I’m like, ‘I've never thought about it before. Let's talk about it,’ and you figure out where else the robot can go from here,” Haldewang says. “The overall vision for the company is that we're in the orchard 24/7 365 days a year performing a role for the grower every single season.”