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Greentech Robotics: Answering the calls of vegetable growers world over with a robotic weeder

This article was published on Nov 9, 2020, 11:36 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Greentech Robotics has done away with manual weeding thanks to their fully autonomous robotic weeder. With Callaghan Innovation support the business rode out the pandemic and accelerated its R&D.

What's in this article

    At a glance

    • Agritech business Greentech Robotics has developed a fully autonomous robotic weeder. The WeedSpider quickly and accurately removes weeds from commercial vegetable fields, helping offset labour costs and scarcity issues in the process.
    • Callaghan Innovation supported Greentech Robotics with its R&D, especially through the pandemic, our R&D Experience Grants as well providing extra staff through student placements.
    • An exciting offshore opportunity, Greentech is looking to take on the Californian market first, before heading to other large US vegetable growing states as well as Europe.

    Callaghan Innovation have been invaluable to Greentech. It’s made all the difference to our ability to develop the project quicker, faster, and have more staff on board.

    - Don Sandbrook, CEO, Greentech Robotics

    Greentech Robotics' Weed Beaters

    [Don Sandbrook]
    The weed spider is an evolution of a product that I developed around 30 years ago which was electronic seed metering systems for vegetable crops seeds by the product is used by about 70 percent of vegetable growers in North America, the number one issue they have is weeding there's around about 1.6 million acres of vegetables grown in California a lot of that is hand-weeded and there's not enough labour and because of this issue growers are calling out for an autonomous weeding solution current systems look for the plant and the weed taking out about 50 of the weeds and trying to avoid the plants our technology is more targeted we wanted to identify every single weed in every single plant we're using machine vision and ai to identify weeds and plants we're then using robotic weeding arms to come in and target just the weed developing technology like this at speed is a bit like a space race only on land it's very important that we get the machine trailed in the us because that's our target market so we need to be trialling it in their conditions their soil their weed types Callaghan Innovation have been invaluable to green tech

    [Shane Dooley]
    They've taken advantage of our project grants, our student experience grants, most recently our R&D Loan.

    [Don Sandbrook]
    It's made all the difference to our ability to develop the project quicker, faster and have more staff on board.

    [Shane Dooley]
    The single most striking thing about them was their crystal-clear understanding of the problem in an offshore market and had a really really innovative way of solving it. So the world's changing really rapidly vastly expanding population and feeding soon to be 10 billion people will be a problem that New Zealand can play a really really big part in and green tech robotics are riding that wave.

    [Don Sandbrook]
    We intend to have weed spider robots working in the field in California late 2021 the California market is the biggest market internationally once we nail that we'll be going into Florida and Arizona before looking to Europe.

    Tackling a prickly problem 

    Weeds are the bane of any gardener’s life. But imagine the headache caused for commercial vegetable growers in California, whose average plot size is around 3,000 acres and where most weeds are having to be removed by hand. 

    It’s a headache that technology entrepreneur Don Sandbrook wanted to tackle, the seed sown for developing the WeedSpider, a fully autonomous robotic weeder.

    And while some businesses already have weed extraction technology, the products only extract around 55 per cent of the problem plants. Sandbrook and fellow Greentech Robotics  founders, Rob Baan and Malcom Bailey, wanted that number to be 45 per cent higher, albeit appreciating the trickiness around removing them autonomously given they grow right up close to the crops. 

    “To develop a product that will actually take over that task from a human is an incredible challenge. We’re trying to develop a machine that will identify every plant, and decide which plants need to stay and which will be extinguished. To develop technology to do that effectively, and at speed, is a bit like a new space race, but on land,” Sandbrook says.

    Greentech Robotics Seedspider

    Greentech Robotics Seedspider

    Supporting Greentech Robotics all the way to the US

    Although based in Palmerston North, Greentech Robotics wanted to target the large Californian market first, initially looking to develop the WeedSpider specifically for the area given its unique soil and climatic conditions. 

    However, to gather that data necessary to finetune the WeedSpider’s machine learning software, the technology needed to be trialled in the US. COVID-19 had a different idea but with Callaghan Innovation support, Greentech Robotics was able to see through the pandemic. 

    “There’s a lot of data we haven’t been able to gather yet, which is going to hold us up, but we’ve been concentrating on other areas of R&D. It [the pandemic disruption] teaches you to be nimble and flexible,” Baan says. “The situation would have been much harder without Callaghan Innovation support. That assistance has been invaluable.”

    The business has also accessed other Callaghan Innovation R&D funding, as well as  several R&D Experience Grants, with Shane Dooley, Callaghan Innovation Business Innovation Advisor, noting that the business provides “an excellent environment for students to thrive and learn in”. 

    Manual labour no more

    Dooley says the scale of the market for the technology and the acuteness of the problem means Greentech Robotics is chasing an exciting opportunity. 

    “That level of export insight for an early-stage New Zealand-based agritech company is rare; we regularly see tech developed for a problem in New Zealand then its developers will look overseas for a market. In this scenario, there’s hardly a New Zealand market, but the business is using its innovation skills to solve a global problem it knows well,” Dooley says. 

    Greentech Robotics hopes to have the weeding machines working on the ground in California at the end of 2021. Once established there, the plan is to pursue the second and third-largest vegetable growing areas in the US – Arizona and Florida – before targeting Europe. 

    But that’s just the beginning. 

    “The automation of manual functions and collection of valuable data in the horticulture and agriculture sectors is going to be a huge industry and we want to be at the forefront of this,” says Baan. “The sector is ready for businesses like ours to make a massive difference to productivity and yields.”

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