Autonomously Transporting Crops with Suma Reddy

Future Acres         
21 February 2022

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Suma Reddy, CEO of Future Acres, talks about her company which is focused on creating smart farming tools to reduce labor demand and increase efficiency. Suma introduces her journey into agriculture technology and the issues in current farming practices that can benefit from robotic solutions. Future Acres’s robotic harvest companion, Carry, autonomously transports crops within the farms and collects valuable data. Suma also discusses the impact of their technology and their visions for the future of agricultural technology.

 Suma Reddy is Co-founder and CEO of Future Acres, an AgTech startup building advanced mobility and AI solutions for farms to increase production efficiency, farmworker safety and provide real-time data and analytics. She is a three-times AgTech + ClimateTech founder (vertical farming, organic waste-to-energy, renewable energy), is on the advisory board of Scale for ClimateTech, a Board Member of GrainPro, and teaches Entrepreneurship for Sustainability and Resilience at the NYC School of Visual Arts. Suma is passionate about sustainable solutions and the disruptive technology that will help advance a better environment and more resilient world forward.




Episode 346 Future Acres

Kate Zhou: Hello, welcome to Robohub. Would you please introduce yourself?

Suma Reddy: Hi Kate. My name is Suma. I am the co-founder and CEO of future acres.

Kate Zhou: Welcome to the show Suma., can you tell us more about what led you to find future Acres.

Suma Reddy:, you know, first, future acres, what it is is are a company that’s building advanced, mobility and AI solutions for farms, starting with carry an autonomous harvest companion that increases production efficiency.

Farm worker safety and provides real time data and analytics. so it’s been a meandering journey to get here. my first gig was actually in the peace Corps in Mali, so I’ve really always been interested in sort of resources and environment impact and agriculture from there, you know, hopped over to India.

working with farms in the micro finance field for a couple of years, my first unicorn startup and post that have really focused on building companies as an entrepreneur at the intersection of climate and agricultural technology. So in a remote digestion, organic waste to energy after that really focused on vertical farming and now the wonderful world of specialty crops and.

Kate Zhou: Well, it’s very fascinating background, very diverse experiences. Thank you. Can you tell us more about the exact goals that future Acres is trying to solve? Yeah.

Suma Reddy: so for us, you know, when we think about the major problem and in our mission, really, as a company, you know, we think about this fact, right.

You know, And not a long time from now, we’re going to reach a population of 10 billion people and we’ll need to increase our production food production by 50% while reducing our emissions by 75% and using no more land. And so agriculture in, in that vein right. Is really important. One of the challenges to really around food production is people and labor.

And so we’re seeing this 20% labor shortage in a lot of farms. And so what that means is 20% less crops that are harvested 20% less revenue for the farms and ultimately 20% less food that could be shipped to our grocery stores. So. On top of that, we also, you know, look at the inefficiencies with sort of this, this wonderful world of outdoor farming.

for example, you know, the wheelbarrow in specialty crop farming, you know, a farm worker will spend 30% of their day hauling hundreds and pounds of crops across across fields and farms. And in our research, we found that we found that. Actually the wheelbarrows invented, I believe in 2 31 CE and China.

and we still use that same wheelbarrow today. so we, we figured out, you know, like what is an intelligent transport solution for us to basically bring, you know solve that piece of the puzzle.

Kate Zhou: I see. Fascinating. So what is your current solution or current technology? That your company provides to solve this piece of the puzzle.

Suma Reddy: So we call our solution, Carrie and it’s essentially the robotic autonomous harvest companion and pick a smart wheelbarrow. And so how they work together for a farm worker is that if a farm worker is say, picking table grapes, On a farm, they have the pick or they’re smart wheelbarrow right next to them.

They plop those, you know, eventually 200 pounds of grapes on that wheelbarrow. you know, we have load sensors on there, so that automatically the fleet of carries at the beginning of farm is alerted that it’s time to go pick up those grapes. And so one of the caries will travel autonomously to the farm worker and the wheelbarrow load up with those crops and then return back to what’s called the sorting station.

Um, we’re packing occurs. And so that cycle a continuous continually repeated. So. intelligent transport is, is really how we think about it.

Kate Zhou: So I see. So the key features include like autonomous navigation as well as. Did you mention also pick up from the wheelbarrow directly from the farm workers or, yeah.

So human companion

Suma Reddy: at that point. Yeah. So we think of it as sort of a collaborative robot, right. so there isn’t right now, though it is considered a future feature set. The grapes are manually offloaded from, from the wheelbarrow, but in terms of features you’re exactly right. The autonomous navigation is the primary primary feature.

Um, the safety of the unit, this is really important, you know, with anything robotics and especially outdoor agriculture. So how are we building safety mechanisms? the third is, you know, how is it powered? Right? So. and keeping it clean, clean energy. the fourth actually is the controller. So we’ve built in a predictive platform because when we think about the future of farming there is going to be swarms of little robots for, on many of these farms.

And so when you think about a lift, right, and how does it optimize, you know, where to go and when to go and those efficiencies we’re building the same type of capable.

Kate Zhou: I see. Cool. I guess let’s get into each of those a little bit more. What are the exact safety features and what is the main considerations when you were designing?

Suma Reddy: Yeah. So when we think about safety we also correlate it to robustness. so for agriculture, as you can imagine, and especially in California in this era of climate change temperatures are getting hotter and hotter. so one, we have to build a robust vehicle and a robust device because early, early on, when we did testing or just 3d printing parts we actually had a part that, that melted.

And so, so really designing for, for the hot climate that we see in California during harvest season is really, really important. On the safety side. it’s things like even having bumpers, right. Uh and being able to navigate around people. So for example, the Carey, if you were standing right in front of it it will stop and make sure not to run into you.

So pretty basic stuff, but really, really important. because this is something that works alongside farm workers.

Kate Zhou: Yeah, totally makes sense. And in terms of the power, how do you maximize the efficiency and how long can each carry robot last?

Suma Reddy: Yeah. So it’s really important that these systems last the full full day.

So that’s how we think about our power, right. And, and in the life of it during, during operation, so lasting a whole day and really swappable batteries our heart, how we’re thinking about it right now. but as you can imagine, you know, there there’s a lot of potential for things like solar charge, battery stations.

Features like that, that can optimize efficiency over time. I see.

Kate Zhou: And the S the solar charged and battery stations, is that on the current carry robot or it’s something that’s upcoming also dependent on the environment, the robots working in?

Suma Reddy: Yeah, I would say it’s it’s in our roadmap. So not at the current iteration.

Kate Zhou: I see. Yeah, that makes sense. What kind of feedback have you received from the farm workers? Does it take some time for adoptation of such technology or was it very well received immediately?

Suma Reddy: Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. so one of the challenges and opportunities we’ve seen in, in, in farming and agriculture is it’s a very traditional industry and the methodologies and how things are done, hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, sometimes even thousands.

And so. talking about innovation and technology it was a pretty exciting opportunity, but I think it’s our responsibility as technologists is to set expectations in the right way. And so what we’ve seen in the past is that sometimes. Over promising and under delivering with agricultural technologies.

And so, you know, for us, that’s a really important value in principle is that everything we promise we can deliver to our farms. So I say that because now, you know, we had a big demo. In October with one of our main partners is, you know, setting expectations in the right way. communicating a lot about what this technology can do and what it cannot do.

Um, and so there, the response was really, really positive. you know, there’s, there’s sort of the owners and managers who run the farm and there’s the farm workers, right? So we think about our users and in two ways, and the first thing. Is this easy to deploy, right? Does it have, and so for us plug and play deployment is a really important piece of our feature set.

Um, the second is, does the productive planning work and you know, absolutely it does. And then three, how are we setting the ground work for these real time data and analytics. and that’s really, really exciting when you think about the future of farming and how data and analytics and precision agriculture are going to come together.

Yeah, and the, and the fourth is really is, is the impact on farm workers. you know, increasing the ease of farm workers is really important for F as, as a mission for us. And so it’s pretty simple. if you can save two hours of a day of a farm worker, hauling hundreds of pounds of grapes or any other crops across farmland, It does make their job easier.

So, so to be Frank, if you ask the question like, oh, you know, is this better? You know, how is it better? It’s a very much a like, duh. Yeah. Like I’m not lugging heavy stuff right anymore. And that solves for that. Cool.

Kate Zhou: Yeah. Could you elaborate a bit more on the plug and play aspects of it? Is there, I imagine it would there,

is there any

setup that is required, or

specific details from the farm?

Suma Reddy: That’s a bit proprietary as, as a feature. So

Kate Zhou: I see that makes sense. And in terms of the data and analytics, I know that would be a huge asset for the farm as well. What are some of the key interests of what of farm workers want to learn? And that could be acquired from the carrier.

Suma Reddy: so yeah, this has been a really interesting problem to solve. right now what we see is that most farms you know, are making seven figure decisions on their farms without any data. So that could be around people. It could be. Around, you know, resources, land, water, pesticides, chemicals, right? All of that management is done with very, very limited amounts of data.

And this is what we have heard directly from farmers themselves. And so. For them you know the usable data for us that we think about is what is the first problem sets that are feasible and that we can solve. And so one data on the fleets themselves, right? the farm operators and managers want to know where are they fleets?

Like, how are they operating? the second. Is around the farm workers themselves, right. right now pay is integrated into a payroll system. And so, so being able to just kind of calculate, oh, this many pounds per location or this many pounds per hour. is really helpful. And then yields yields is really important.

So if we can do yield per varietal yield per location, yield pro time you’ll per month et cetera, these are really valuable data points. And so that’s where we’re starting. and you know, where, where we can start today. ultimately though the, you know, the future is on building upon that platform because we, we have this, this robbing ground robot, so we can.

You know, plugin sensors, and we can plug in computer vision to really grab things around crop quality health yield indicators like that, and more environmental metrics as well. And so that’s really the future.

Kate Zhou: I see. That makes sense. Are there any specialization needed for different types of crops or when you say specialty crops, what are the main like types of

Suma Reddy: crops or market you’re targeting?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So specialty crops comprises are, you know, fruits, vegetables, nuts and also horticulture product. So it is not. Your grains, your weeds, your rice, your corn, your soy which often time or the, the Midwest is how we often think about row crops as it’s called specialty crops.

Um, largely sit in in California. but you know, they are. Elsewhere as well. And so our first market that we look at is table grapes. 99% of table grapes are grown in California. So it’s a fantastic market cause it’s right in our back door. And it very much has the problems that we’ve identified.

So in terms of what adaptations would be needed to be made to both, you know, the harp hardware piece of it, as well as. The data and software piece of it is one, a table groups itself has a huge problem set to solve for. so we’ve developed our designs our Harvard designs based on how table grape farms are set up.

So, you know, we look at apples, we look at peaches, we look at strawberries, right. I was really interesting markets as well. but definitely, you know, The some hardware changes would be neat to me to those, but the cool part is I’m on the data and analytical side that really would just be minor iterations because we would be capturing the same similar pieces of data.

Kate Zhou: I say. So in terms of the hardware changes do you think any sensing suite? Well, so we to change what kind of sensors are onboard now and are most of them focus on navigate. We’re also specialized different

Suma Reddy: crops. Yeah. So primarily right now it is based on the autonomous navigation. those are the primary kind of sensing on the, the wheelbarrow itself.

Right. We have a load load sensor and location as well. Let’s see.

Kate Zhou: And what are some other future tools or features you might imagine that carry or other products will interface with the

Suma Reddy: farms? Okay. so I think, you know, for us the million dollar question. Do we become the sort of all-in-one table grape robotic solution?

Um, or do we expand into other crops? And I actually don’t think it’s a binary solution. for us we’re getting started by solving what we think is. The biggest problem set and the most technologically feasible challenge to solve, which, you know, again is what we call this intelligent transport. and part of that, the big problem we have to solve is how do we do ruggedize autonomous navigation across the farm.

Um, and so that’s really our starting point. and starting with table grapes. I think the second piece of that right, is going to be looking at other types of. Table grape solutions across the harvest value chain. so, you know, for example during harvesting, right, you need to, you need to weed, you need to seed you need to harvest right.

You need to do all these. You need to pack, you need to pick pack, ship and robotics can play a role in all of those pieces of the value chain. for example, I was having a call today around. Right. And, and we know chemical weeding is really bad for the soil. and in this era of, you know, increased knowledge and interests, thankfully around regenerative agriculture, it’s, you know, how do we do things to the land that don’t harm it.

Right. And actually can help it in, in carbon sequestration. So You know, so I think there’s, there’s that I think moving into other crops you know, on the, on the transportation side is gonna be a huge need that labor challenges are not going to go away, you know, unfortunately, because of how we’ve set up you know, migrant workforces and the policies we’ve put in place.

you know, we, we have to address them in, in robotics is one of them and see.

Kate Zhou: Where do you see the future of agriculture field going and how does that impact the market? now the food supply prices, et cetera.

Suma Reddy: Yeah. so I think it’s, I think, you know, a few trends that I’m seeing in reading and hearing you know, one is precision agriculture.

Um, so, you know, As I mentioned, as we get understand more data, right? First the first challenge is capturing the data and then being able to analyze the data you know, we can not, we can be predictive and prescriptive in terms of what happens on the farm. So for example, you know, spot dosing of pesticide.

So instead of like this kind of spray and pray approach really being very targeted, right about where we are. pesticides on the farm, you know, so that’s just, that’s just one example. You know, another example is, is being able to analyze, you know, the crop health and quality metrics and being able to predict yields out of that.

Um, and then that impacts, you know, the revenue of the farm, right. And things like that. So precision agriculture, I think, is really, really quite exciting. I think we’re going to see that coalesce with, as I mentioned, regenerative agriculture I was just speaking to an organic farmer actually based in the UK.

Um, and really thinking about, you know, how are we running farms in a, in a more organic way and even regenerative. And so the, the best ways to do that, right? at a scalable level, or are trying to incorporate. Both small and large technologies to play a role in this. so ultimately I think, you know, the, these pillars that we think about right is one is on the food production side.

Two is on the farm worker side. And what is the future of. for farm. So I mentioned that trend as well. you know, we’re, we’re working with communities and farm worker communities. cause we understand, you know, when we talked to micro farm workers in California, you know, say in and around Fresno, the, their kids are understandably don’t want to do this work.

And so the nature of work in, in agriculture is going to change, right? We’ll have people who are. More Mecca mechanics, right. More fixing of these robots. hopefully maybe renting right at the equipment and having our ownership over it. So, so I think it’s the people side. I think it’s the technology side.

I think it’s climate, right. all converging into, into a lot of different opportunities. Yeah.

Kate Zhou: Cool. final question, based on your experience so far, what would you think the, I guess, related, what would you think one of the. main bottlenecks of all of these solutions could be, is it the technology side or is it the logistics and the policy side, or, and if you have any thoughts of within the technology, based on your experience with your team, is the effort be more on fences people division or a controller and optimization, or is it really the data we’re still meeting?

Suma Reddy: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think on the challenges side, I would say it’s capital and technology. so technology, not that all this technology doesn’t exist, right. We’ve seen robotics has been around forever. you know, I often just look at manufacturing right. And see it as a blueprint in many ways for what’s going to happen on the.

Um, the challenge right with, with agriculture is, you know, we are trying to build military grade equipment essentially at Aztec prices. you know, the stuff has to be highly ruggedized. and so it can’t, it can’t be as delicate as you know, to be Frank what you see in industrial and indoor applications.

And so I think we’re. Or absolutely there you know, as an industry but making it commercial and scalable right. Is kind of our, is our, is our challenge. so that’s related to sort of the capital piece of. I think, you know, we are having a lot of interests from investors, thankfully in the food and ag space as well as in the robotics space and, and those who care about impact in, in general.

Um, but to be Frank, you know, Aztec, isn’t some consumer SAS product, right? It costs money to build these things. The timelines are longer. And so, you know, feel grateful that there’s a lot of different types of funding mechanisms. We’re seeing we’ve employed equity crowdfunding. For example, we raised a 1.56 million this past October via equity crowdfunding.

Um, you know, we’re backed by a VC as well, but I think we’re going to be really creative, have to be really creative around how capital comes into the industry.

Kate Zhou: Cool. Thank you for your insight. It’s very interesting.

Suma Reddy: Of course, we’re close to the time,

Kate Zhou: but I’m pretty curious, like as a final question about.

Um, what are some of your biggest lessons learned on your own entrepreneurial journey or any advice for people who are interested in robotics and entrepreneurship?

Suma Reddy: Yeah. this is a big question. I’ve learned, so I’ve learned so many lessons cause I’ve been at it for so long. I, you know, I think one is people you know, You know, sometimes people think of entrepreneurship because we sort of have this notion in our society that, you know, the solo hero entrepreneur, like the Elon Musk or the Steve jobs.

Um, but it’s a team sport right. There’s some people who are good at storytelling and marketing and gaining the notoriety. but it’s a team sport. And so really talk to as many people as possible as you are building. What you want to build, even at a really early stage perfectionism will kill ideas, will kill execution.

Um, so just try to try to, you know, talk to as many people in the way that is most comfortable for you, right? If you don’t like face to face, you know, do you know, see if there’s a way you can join communities in different ways slacks and things like that. I think the second thing is, is patients like, especially for all of us here, you know, who are doing hard tech right.

And building robotics it’s, it’s a long game. and so I think of things, honestly in 10 year cycles when it comes to these, these types of companies. So having patients, which I actually don’t have in many ways I’m someone who definitely loves to run. But it’s a, it’s a constant learning for me to just try to be patient in the building of these, of these solutions and companies.

Kate Zhou: I see. Well, thank you so much, so much. That was very interesting. Thank you for your time.

Suma Reddy: Yeah, no, thank you.


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Kate Zhou

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