In the battle against rising costs, unforgiving weather and labor shortages complicated and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it helps to have a partner. This is particularly true in the agriculture industry, where the pressure to produce more food than ever before is compounded by fewer resources. Enter Blue White Robotics, a company that seeks to revolutionize agriculture and other industries through autonomy.
By combining technology, regulation and operation services, Blue White Robotics collaborates with farmers of permanent crops to provide a holistic solution to their biggest industry-related woes. The two parties work closely together.
This team-effort approach ensures Blue White Robotics understands the farmers’ primary concerns before using a bolt-on kit to convert traditional tractors into autonomous equipment and setting up the single-operator control platform. Similarly, producers have a handle on the technology and how their autonomous tractor fleet functions before they’re tasked with operating the machinery themselves.
“It’s a pretty intimate process,” says Adam Fine, U.S. Business Development Manager. “We always start with what we call robots-as-a-service, where we provide the conversion kit install on the equipment, set everything up and run the first steps of the operation. To start, it’s our personnel on the grower’s location. As things progress and the grower becomes more comfortable, we come up with a good concept of operations, and we can hand that off to the grower. It’s a crawl-walk-run approach.”
Fleet management technology improves operations and reduces uncertainty.
While many of the industry’s autonomous technology providers focus on systems, Blue White Robotics works mainly with large fleets of vehicles. The company’s three founders used their decades of experience in the Israeli Air Force to develop the autonomous vehicles control platform used by civilian farmers today.
“The platform doesn't really care whether it's a tractor, a lawn mower, a truck or a drone,” Fine says. “It's about taking information into action and allowing you to make good decisions, so the vehicles can perform the most intense tasks. These are the tasks that normally require a grower to spend 12 hours per day in the cab of a hot vehicle or expose them to chemicals that impact worker safety.”
This is a primary concern for Blue White Robotics’ ag customers: Farmers with larger vineyards and orchards, who have anywhere from 10 to hundreds of tractors. These producers are highly invested in reducing the human labor required to perform repetitive jobs like spraying, mowing, discing and towing boxes of picked fruit at harvest.
Fine says that a combination of labor shortages, costs, safety concerns and uncertainty of programs like H-2A has led to a perfect storm of uncertainty—one that positions automation as the best potential solution. Blue White Robotics’ products are designed to meet this need, but not everyone is an ideal fit.
“We are a bit choosy about the growers we work with because they need to understand that this is a growing technology, and they need to have the right attitude about it,” Fine says. “There has to be some comfort level on both sides that we're building something together. There’s no silver bullet in agriculture, and I think a lot of growers realize that. We certainly don’t want to present the image that this is some magical solution. It's an autonomous tractor that does a great job with what you're expecting it to do, which is repetitive cultural practices.”
Building an autonomous farm requires time, patience and mutual trust.
Once the partnership between the two parties has been established, Blue White Robotics can get to work. The company begins by understanding the operation’s needs, workflow and biggest challenges through an in-person inspection of the site. This also ensures Blue White Robotics is a good match for the farm.
Then, instead of selling its customers a bolt-on conversion kit or an autonomous tractor, Blue White Robotics sells its services. The autonomous technology provider starts slow, outfitting four tractors with the kit that will transform them into autonomous vehicles. These autonomous tractors can then be used to help with a variety of tasks, from mowing and disking to spraying and towing.
“This is where the crawl-walk-run approach works really well,” Fine says. “You start by focusing on what your biggest need is in the spring because you're going to see the best ROI on what you use the most. If you're constantly changing implements, and you're sacrificing consistency and the machine’s ability to perform that task. You really need to go back to basics by doing what matters most to you and then growing with the program from there.”
In order to provide a truly effective and holistic solution, Blue White Robotics continues to work with farmers beyond the implementation of the bolt-on kit. This prolonged partnership is beneficial for ensuring operations remain at the forefront of the industry’s latest innovations.
“Our service is a lease that you have for the tractor, which means you don't feel like the model you bought two years from now is not supported anymore,” Fine says. “New technology comes out, and it's very fast-moving. We continuously upgrade and support your units. It's not like the cellphone model where you always feel behind the curve. We upgrade as we go, and we build up the fleet as your comfort grows with the technology.”
Over time, Blue White Robotics will outfit more tractors and use a curriculum to onboard and train the farm’s employees. The handoff process is where workers learn to manage the BlueWhite Platform that controls the fleet remotely and delivers insights that help improve efficiency and decision making. Despite the slow start, farmers eventually have access to something rare in their line of work: peace of mind.
“During COVID, one of the worst aspects for farmers was just not knowing what to do,” Fine says. “Should they invest in more infrastructure for housing, sanitation and PPE? Are they going to have exorbitant overtime costs? That's the kind of stuff they don't want to have to worry about. It's already a seasonal business, and there are already so many unknowns, they don't need more.
“With our services, farmers say that the biggest relief is knowing that the future has a solution,” Fine continues. “They're not going to be just constantly concerned and tearing their hair out about the unknowns. With fleet management improvement, the operators know that the spray is being applied at the correct speed in the right place on every single block.”