Crop Robotics: Interview with Bluewhite’s Alon Ascher on $39M Series C
Agriculture is among the industries most heavily reliant on manual labor. But as global demand for food increases and the amount of land available for cultivation decreases, the size of the agricultural workforce is not growing – actually, it’s diminishing.
At the same time, farmers and food companies are striving to make their operations more sustainable by reducing emissions, chemical use, and negative impacts on land and water.
Robotics offers a potential solution to both of these problems, as explored in Cleantech Group’s recent Crop Robotics research.
By automating on-farm tasks such as spraying, farms can use chemicals and water more efficiently, reducing waste and the risk of run-off into the surrounding environment. By deploying robotics to handle the harvest, farms can work round the clock in all conditions to ensure produce is not left in the field where it can go to waste and generate emissions.
Cracking the Adoption Code
Despite these benefits, crop robotics start-ups often face a struggle to get their technology into the hands of farmers.
Bluewhite is one player which believes it has cracked the code. The company’s technology solution has been deployed across 150,000 acres of crops in California and Washington state, with more than 50,000 hours of autonomous farming activity under its belt.
Chief business officer Alon Ascher told me that, rather than marketing itself as a robotics specialist, the U.S.-Israeli start-up instead positions itself as an enabler of “autonomous farms” with a focus on permanent cropping operations such as orchards and vineyards.
I was speaking to Ascher earlier this week, when Bluewhite announced the close of its $39M Series C fundraise. Insight Partners led the round, with Alumni Ventures and LIP Ventures joining as first-time investors. Existing backers Entrée Capital, Jesselson, and Peregrine Ventures also participated.
Having focused on the U.S. west coast until now, the start-up intends to use the Series C funds to scale up and enter new geographies such as the east coast, Australasia, and Europe, said Ascher.
“In a nutshell, we provide data-driven autonomous farms. We convert existing farms, which are very offline, to provide them with autonomy and data to increase productivity and reduce operational costs,” he added.
“The value-add here is not just about the reduced availability of labor, but also the use of chemicals, equipment maintenance, and liability and safety. That’s why this isn’t just an autonomous tractor, but an autonomous farm.”
Bluewhite’s solution includes several key elements, including an after-market kit that can be installed on existing equipment from all major tractor and implement brands to make them autonomous; as well as a cloud platform that can manage these upfitted vehicles as a fleet.
Named Pathfinder, the start-up’s upfitting kit combines both hardware and software. Taking its cue from human workers, it comprises ‘eyes’ to see, ‘hands’ to perform tasks, a ‘mouth’ to communicate, and a ‘brain’ to process and analyze all the data collected by these different parts, according to Ascher.
“Starting with eyes, [that] includes Lidar, cameras, and also GPS,” he added. “We include multiple sensors and fuse them together to test, analyze, and perceive the surrounding environment and obstacles, and also to navigate without GPS. When you look at crops like almonds, it’s basically like driving in a tunnel, so [Pathfinder] needs the ability to sense its environment without GPS.”
The platform’s ‘brain’ is its edge computing capability, that enables it to analyze data and make decisions in real time without ongoing cellular connectivity. Its ‘mouth’ is the communications module with LTE, 5G, and older compatibility to ensure data can be shared by whatever channels are available. As for the ‘hands’: these are controls that can replicate the actions of a driver in the tractor cab, moving levers and hitting the brakes where necessary.
“In the case of orchards and vineyards, there are no drive-by-wire tractors,” Ascher said. “So when we thought about how we could do this today utilizing existing equipment, it became a big challenge where we needed to build all our infrastructure from scratch, because there was nothing to connect to. But on the plus side, that has provided us with the long-term advantage to be agnostic, so 90% of our work on, say, a John Deere model, is also applicable to a Massey Ferguson.”
Collaboration is Key
“Autonomy in farming isn’t about driving from A to B, but executing a task, so we put a lot of effort into collaborations to integrate the implements and bring this as a package to the growers. We have good relationships with [equipment] dealerships. Last year we were busy certifying with John Deere and New Holland dealers to include our tech with their equipment,” Ascher said. “Dealers already have the relationships and have great expertise; we want to give them the tools and empower them to sell this technology.”
“Meanwhile, with the OEMs themselves, we have open discussions about how to implement this into their vehicles. Both the tech problem and business problem on permanent crops is dramatically different to the row crops where most of the big players are focused. They have less capacity to automate those smaller, 50-100 horsepower vehicles so they really appreciate our knowledge and experience in this area.”
Finding the Right Business Model
Aside from collaborations, building a business model that is both farmer friendly and economically viable for Bluewhite itself has been a focus for the team.
“We provide this as a subscription. We try to create this holistic package of having hardware, software, and support as a package, and offset some of the growers’ headaches, so they can calculate and see the ROI from day one and have more control on their budget.”
As highlighted in Cleantech Group’s recent Crop Robotics Spotlight, key barriers to broader adoption of robotics and automation solutions in agriculture include cost and perceived risk. Semi-autonomous offerings like Bluewhite’s can potentially meet both these challenges.
In terms of cost, kits that can be upfitted to adapt existing equipment are likely to be far less costly than fully autonomous robots that would need to be purchased off the shelf. And in terms of risk, the subscription model provided by Bluewhite provides farmers with more peace-of-mind than one-off purchases, coming as it does with the opportunity for ongoing support.
Farm robotics start-ups raised a total of $274M in funding in 2023, according to Cleantech Group i3 data. That was a significant leap from the $199M raised in the previous year.