Advanced Farm Technologies, a farm robotics company based in California, has closed a $25 million Series B round of funding led by Catapult Ventures. The round also included participation from all of Advanced Farm Technologies’ Series A investors: tractor maker Kubota, automotive giant Yamaha Motor, and Impact Ventures.
Founded in 2018, Advanced Farm Technologies’ core business is its TX Robotic Strawberry Harvester, which can sense and pick ripe strawberries from in-soil beds in the field.
The robot is equipped with a stereo camera that scans around the strawberry beds taking many images every second and adapting the path of the machine based on those images. Real-time machine-learning models take into account factors like size and ripeness of the berries and make decisions on where to move the harvester to get closer to those berries. The robotic grippers then gently pick the ripe fruit and transfer it to baskets.
Harvesters work alongside human laborers. On any given field there could be three to five harvesters, with a single person operating the machines. Advanced Farm Technologies co-founder and president Kyle Cobb tells AFN that on a 200-acre farm, you might have a few different crews picking strawberries, with one of those crews made up of his company’s robots.
Cobb says a major benefit of the robotic harvesters is that they can work 24 hours a day, and can assist growers when they face shortages of human labor.
For now, Advanced Farm is focused on open-field farming, which is how the majority of strawberries in the US are produced right now.
The task of harvesting crops, strawberries or otherwise, is often seen as a perfect candidate for automation because its repetitive nature means it can be handled by the current generation of robots. Advanced Farm is one of a number of companies working in this area; others include UK-Norwegian startup Saga Robotics, which also makes a strawberry-picking robot, and Denver, Colorado-based Tortuga. Greenhouse ag company AppHarvest is bringing the concept of ag robots indoors with its recent acquisition of Root AI, whose system can help with harvesting greenhouse-grown tomatoes [disclosure: our parent company, AgFunder, is an investor in AppHarvest through the latter’s acquisition of Root AI.]
However, as Tortuga co-founder Eric Adamson told AFN earlier this year, these startups have many challenges to contend with before the idea of robotic pickers on the field becomes commonplace.
But for Cobb, Advanced Farm has an advantage; which, he says, is illustrated by the company’s decision to use some of its Series B funds to adapt its tech for use with other crops (primarily, apples.)
“One of the things that makes our company special in the space is that we’ve ended up building a lot of the components of our solution in-house – anything from the chassis to the electric drive system, to the robot itself,” he says. “That’s been a hard road, but we’re now to the point where we think a lot of those benefits are applicable to other areas.”
In other words, he says, the company is not starting from square one this time. It’s repurposing many of its existing components and learnings, from how the machines move to how they grip the fruit. That could help it bring its technology to apple growers and orchards faster.