Ag-tech’s heavy lifting: Startup among those seeing demand for on-farm automation

The TerraClear Rock Picker is designed to eliminate the backbreaking manual labor of the agricultural industry. (Photo Terra Clear)

PITTSBURGH — Rocks are as dumb as ever, but the folks behind TerraClear are getting smarter every day as the ag-tech startup tweaks its AI-powered machine that helps farmers pick up those rocks from fields.

Based in Bellevue, Washington, and Grangeville, Idaho, 4-year-old TerraClear was started by Brent Frei, the former CEO of Onyx Software and co-founder of Smartsheet. The company uses mapping technology, computer vision and artificial intelligence to help guide its Rock Picker robot, a device that can be mounted on agricultural equipment to extract an average of 400 rocks per hour from the ground.

TerraClear President Trevor Thompson said the company has sold every picker it has built since last fall. But supply chain issues limit how many and how quickly new ones can be built.

“Each iteration we kind of tweak the design until we’re ready to really deploy this thing on a larger scale,” Thompson said.

Thompson left the farm and traveled to Pittsburgh this week to present TerraClear’s work at the Cascadia Connect Robotics, Automation and AI conference. The conference is organized by Seattle-based Cascadia Capital, which underwrites GeekWire’s independent reporting on the subject.

In a panel discussion titled “The Smart Field: How is RAAI Reshaping Agriculture?” Thompson said TerraClear offers farmers “rock release,” a very old and recurring problem for the industry that is costly in terms of labor and impact on expensive machinery.

TerraClear President Trevor Thompson, third from left, at an ag-tech roundtable in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. (Photo GeekWire/Kurt Schlosser)

The roundtable, which also included agri-tech innovators working on how crops are grown and harvested, highlighted the role automation will play in the near future and how startups are innovating in the mix with just a few giant corporations. who control all key aspects of the industry.

“We have yet to meet a farmer who didn’t want a self-contained Rock Picker to do what it would otherwise have to do,” Thompson said. To get there, we had to meet the farmers where they are.

At a conference and in a city where self-driving cars are often talked about, autonomy on the farm could happen faster than on the street, while presenting its own set of challenges.

Modern combines and tractors already use many automated features, so farming isn’t just waiting for the concept to be perfected on the roads. But Thompson said getting the farmer out of the cab is at least a concern.

“It’s nice when they can see it,” he said of farmers watching an autonomous machine on their land. “But as soon as it goes over the horizon, there’s some unknown fear that it’s going to continue down the canyon and they’re going to lose $500,000.”

Get a reading on rocks in a field with mapping technology developed by TerraClear. (Photo Terra Clear)

Innovation will also come faster for lower-risk tasks, such as picking up rocks, Thompson believes. Farmers will certainly be quicker to jump on a machine that can handle such grueling work, but they might be slower to let a machine pick delicate fruits and vegetables.

Some panelists were disappointed with how slowly agriculture giants and equipment manufacturers have taken to innovate. But when it comes to harvesting, big tech was mentioned by panelists. Data harvesting is what attracts Google and Microsoft.

Renee Vassilos, director of agricultural innovation for The Nature Conservancy, called Amazon Retail in India and the agronomy services it pioneered, helping farmers improve fruit and vegetable yield and quality through technology. .

Whether TerraClear will ever become a tech giant remains to be seen. Frei has previously said it has the potential to be bigger than Smartsheet, which is an $8 billion company.

Last year, TerraClear raised $25 million in new funding and to date has raised $38 million. The startup now employs 35 people, having hired a group of engineers last year.

In the world of ag-tech, Thompson said TerraClear is “kind of a popular kid in town” because the startup solves a visceral, current problem, and farmers love technology that can solve a problem immediately.

“We’re using technology that’s going to make things better over time,” Thompson said. “But it’s not like it’s a predictive problem. It’s not a future problem.

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