Last week we had the opportunity to join a group of AgTech leaders on the stage at Silicon Valley Forum’s day-long Robots on the Rise event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
The event brought together experts from around the world for a look at impact of leading edge robotics on everything from autonomous vehicles to agriculture, healthcare, and everyday human happiness.
For the afternoon panel Mechanical Animals: The Future of Automated Agriculture, Soracom CTO Kenta Yasukawa was honored to share the stage with an exceptional group of growers and technologists, including:
- George Kellerman, COO and General Partner at Yamaha Motor Ventures
- Nolan Paul, Head of R&D Strategy and Emerging Technology at Driscoll’s
- Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics
- And moderator Dennis Donohoe, Chief Innovation Officer at Western Growers, which represents local and regional family farmers growing fresh produce in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico.
For those who don’t know the name, Driscoll’s grows most of the berries we eat here in California and represents almost a third of the entire U.S. berry market. Driscoll’s has a compelling interest not only in making harvesting more efficient but also in reducing the physically arduous nature of the work. Tools like the advanced grasping capabilities pioneered by Soft Robotics offer an opportunity to not only improve harvesting of crops but, equally important, to reduce the reduce the percentage of crops currently abandoned during harvesting, packing and processing.
That can currently approach 15–30%, and an additional 20% can be lost during distribution due to cold chain interruptions. In total, nearly 50% of crops can be lost to breakage before reaching the customer, so the potential for technology to have an impact on pricing and even food security is enormous.
Of course, the challenges are enormous as well. While the aggregate numbers are impressive, each crop has its own specific requirements, and identifying opportunities for cross-crop cooperation and problem-solving will be crucial. On that note, Kenta pointed out the challenges of ensuring connectivity across broad and often remote geographic areas, and the importance of reducing the cost barrier for maintaining thousands of active devices in field by minimizing initial cost and ensuring pay-as-you-go service that scales well.
Representing the investor perspective, George Kellerman noted the importance of taking a long view. He noted that the Bill Gates maxim that most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years applies fully in agriculture but can be hard on the startups that will drive innovation in AgTech.
The complete technology ecosystem encompasses robotics, connectivity, AI, material science and more, so large partners like Yamaha with global balance sheets will be instrumental in helping early-stage ventures to weather a ten-year cycle’s inevitable storms.
Bringing the session to a close, Kenta emphasized that in the complex and interdependent IoT ecosystem no one company can — or should — do it all, which is why Soracom places a strong emphasis on building a strong network of partners. This was a great opportunity to introduce Soracom partner Kakaxi to the audience — Kakaxi’s innovative agricultural monitors not only measure temperature, humidity and sunlight but also offer time-lapse photography for real-time monitoring of crops as they grow.
The larger point that concluded the panel was that we are all in this together, and this event was a great opportunity to build new relationships to help take hold of the opportunities for agriculture.
After the panel, we got to explore the demo area, and proved the point by bumping into a couple of our global customers.
- WHILL, maker of award-winning, FDA-approved personal mobility devices
- YUKAI ENGINEERING, maker of the (seriously adorable) Bocco family robot and the (possibly even more adorable) QOOBO interactive cushion.
If “interactive cushion” doesn’t sound adorable to you, check out their Kickstarter. (Yes, I’m a backer.)
For more on the future of automated agriculture, follow Soracom, Silicon Valley Forum, and our fellow AgTech panelists!
- Soracom, Inc.
- Silicon Valley Forum
- George Kellerman
- Carl Vause
- Driscoll’s Berry (twitter)
- Western Growers