Gary Thompson – Guss Automation – Ep 24

Gary Thompson, COO at GUSS Automation

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Gary Thompson, from GUSS Automation, who we will be talking to about how their autonomous sprayer trucks are helping create a more sustainable form of crop protection for the farming industry.


[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.

Today on our show, I’m joined by Gary Thompson from GUSS Automation, who I’ll be talking to about how their autonomous sprayer trucks are helping create a more sustainable form of crop protection for the farming industry.

So with no further delays let’s get started.

Hi, Gary, how are you?

[00:00:25] Gary Thompson: Doing very well. How are you doing today?

[00:00:28] Mitchell Denton: I’m doing quite well thank you. Before we get into it, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and maybe a fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know. 

[00:00:39] Gary Thompson: All right. So. Yeah, my name is Gary Thompson I am the COO of GUSS Automation. And GUSS Automation it’s an AgTech company based in Kingsburg, California, so right in the central valley of California. 

And we develop, manufacture and sell autonomous orchard and vineyard sprayers. So kind of the first and only in the market of its kind.

About myself, I actually grew up in Arizona. Uh I, grew up on a large dairy farm in the state. And there’s not, not many dairies in Arizona, but, um, the ones that are there are very, well-run very, um high technologically advanced dairies, uh with typically a lot of cattle and a lot of, lot of good tech to go along with running those operations.

So, that’s kind of my background in milking the cows and, and growing feed for them. I went to college at California Polytechnic State University, which is in San Luis Obispo, California. 

While I was going there, I really started spending a lot of time here in the central valley of the state and just kind of fell in love with everything that it had, you know, it’s, it’s amazing. The fruits, the nuts, the grapes, just the diversity of agriculture here in, in this valley it really is incredible. 

Cattle and row crops and just an amazing amount of, of food is grown here that shipped, you know, all over the world. So, uh, kind of always had it in the back of my mind if I did something different that I would, I would move to this valley.

So, yeah, interestingly enough, I think I’m one of the only people that’s moved into California recently and um kind of caught a lot of flack from that. People told me I was nuts, everyone else’s leaving the state, but here I am coming in and, and, uh, really see a lot of opportunity still in California.

So, um, yeah, it’s been great.

[00:02:36] Mitchell Denton: That’s great. Well, on that note, let’s talk farm to fork. So continuing on from you telling us what you do, would you mind telling us a little bit more about the history of Guss Automation and how your innovative technology works? 

[00:02:50] Gary Thompson: Sure. So, GUSS Automation was all born to solve a problem. So Dave Crinklaw, he’s the CEO and Founder of the company and he had a commercial spraying business that he started about 40 years ago. 

That spraying business, he started just with one tractor and he was out Spraying for himself, spraying for some neighbours and then just kind of grew that business into, uh, the largest commercial spraying business in California, actually, um, for trees and vines, so all permanent crop. 

And the number one biggest challenge in that business is just finding tractor drivers. So it just became a huge problem for him. He’s sending crews up and down the state, you know, oftentimes five-six hours away from home. 

So, they’d spray all night long and then they go sleep in the motel during the day, and then they go back and spray all night again. Very difficult to find people that want to do that kind of work. 

Um, very, very tedious work as well. I mean, most of it’s, you know, you’re driving the tractor at two miles an hour and again, most of it’s at nights just because when the temperatures get kind of hot, the materials that you’re spraying on the trees and vines, begin to lose effectiveness. 

So, um, for that reason, a lot of night spraying, so just very difficult to get people to do that. And the growers were just overwhelmingly asking for our service and they said, “We don’t like spraying it’s, it’s, it’s difficult, there’s a lot of regulation involved, there’s a lot of liability involved with the chemical aspect and the employees”. 

So asking our company to go spray for them, and we could easily go buy a tractor. And, you know, we’ve been building our own spray rigs for probably 30 years to use in that business. But finding that tractor driver is just incredibly difficult and keeping them. 

So, Dave had, had this idea for quite some time about how great it would be to do a driverless sprayer. And finally, in 2014, he kind of got to a point where he decided he either needed to innovate or get out of this business. 

And so luckily he decided to innovate and really had no idea how to build an autonomous sprayer, but knew he had to start with a platform. So he kind of drew it out on the shop floor, what the first autonomous sprayer ought to look like and the sizing of it all, and they just started building it. And, then it was about a three and a half year process of trying to figure out how to make it drive autonomously.

So that all started in 2014. We finally got it to the point where it was usable in about mid 2017, very difficult challenge, because it’s basically GPS denied driving. When you get under that tree canopy, um, GPS signal, doesn’t go through the branches. So, I had to use some other sensors and a lot of software to get it, to drive in that, in that condition.

Uh, but we got it to that point where it was driving, started calling our customers in that spray business and said, “Hey look, we’ve got this thing to the point where it’s, it’s very usable if you’ll have us, we’d like to bring these machines out on our next spray. For the grower and overwhelmingly they, they said, yes, bring them out.

Uh, we need these kinds of technologies in agriculture. So that’s what we started doing. Late 2017, early 2018, we started commercially spraying with those machines and that was a huge point for us because, um, really allowed us to put just a lot of hours and a lot of acres on those machines and fine tune the software, fine tune the actual mechanics of the machine, and really the user interface is a huge, huge part of this thing. Um, fine tune all of that. 

Our, our whole idea from day one is that we wanted. A single employee to be able to monitor up to eight of these machines at a time while they’re out spraying.

And not only is it a one employee, but we wanted it to be one of our existing spray tractor drivers. Um, cause we’re, we’re smart enough to know that, you know, you’re probably not going to have very good luck hiring a computer scientist or an engineer and saying, “Okay, go out to the middle of nowhere and spray for 14 hours tonight”, you know, and then do it all over the next day and the next day for the rest of your life.

[00:07:18] Mitchell Denton: Definitely. 

[00:07:20] Gary Thompson: So what we did is we built the user interface to the level of the employees that we already had spraying the fields for us. And, um, that worked out incredibly well. So instead of that guy, driving a tractor all night long at two miles an hour with the chemicals, now he’s in a pickup with a laptop, computer monitoring the sprayers.

And for that employee its a huge upgrade, you know, and, and he’s excited about the tech, he’s excited about being up-skilled, being out of that environment and yeah, just a, a win-win for everyone. So 

[00:07:58] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. 

[00:07:59] Gary Thompson: been doing the commercial spraying and then. We took these things to, um, the World Ag Expo and Tulare, California back in 2018.

And that’s where we just decided, you know what, let’s show the world what we’ve been working on for all these years. And the growers there just really started showing a huge amount of interest and saying, this is great, but we want to buy ’em, you know, a lot of growers don’t like to have commercial companies come in and do their work.

They want that control and to be able to own their equipment and go on their own schedule and all that. So out of all that interest, we really started thinking about getting into actual manufacturing and sales of our machines as compared to why we originally designed it was just to solve our own problem in our business.

So, that’s what we did. We started, uh, building a new building to manufacture the machines out of and then we sold our first units to outside customers in the end of 2019. So that’s kind of the, the history and yeah, a lot’s happened since then.

[00:09:07] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, no, definitely. I’ve got to say they’re actually really beautiful looking machines. I think as far as farming is concerned, a lot of it is, is obviously practical, but very ugly and janky looking, but I feel like the design is very aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also very practical for the job at hand.

And the team at PostHarvest have been watching you guys for awhile. So we’re really excited to have you on right now because we just, we really admire your work and what you guys have done with that technology. So that’s really cool. 

[00:09:39] Gary Thompson: Yeah. Thank you. 

[00:09:40] Mitchell Denton: No worries. I see that GUSS has entered into a joint venture with John Deere.

Would you mind talking about what this joint venture means for the team moving forward? 

[00:09:51] Gary Thompson: Yes. So. Super exciting you know, that John Deere took an interest in what we’re doing and is very validating, honestly, for all the efforts that we’ve put into this. 

And, um, you know, it’s one thing, it’s a huge thing. When the customers are validating your product and, and buying it and saying, “Man, this thing’s really changed our business, this is amazing, this is the only way to go moving forward”. 

But, you know, it’s even better when the largest tractor manufacturer in the world comes to your door and they want to be part of it as well. So, very exciting and really what it does for us is it kind of allows us to expedite a lot of our plans as far as innovating and growth and, and getting these machines out to different corners of the world.

Obviously with the dealer network of Deere, that’s huge. And their ability to market and sell product is, is just, you know, the best in the world. And, so we’re excited about that and just help on A lot of things, you know, engineering side of things, uh, parts sourcing, a lot of different facets that they have a huge amount of expertise in, and a lot of resources that we can now tap into.

[00:11:08] Mitchell Denton: Definitely. Definitely. It’s very exciting. So what would you say is the biggest challenge your team have encountered so far with innovating these unmanned spray systems and how did you manage to overcome it?

[00:11:19] Gary Thompson: So I kind of touched on it earlier. The GPS denied portion of it, um, was a very difficult challenge. It’s a combination of, um, some different sensors that we’re using the machine still does have GPS on it, but like a LIDAR sensor, for example, is a big part of our solution for that. Uh, some steering sensors, some wheel encoders, there’s a variety of sensors.

And then the magic all comes in where you’re taking information from each of these sensors. And then the computer has to decide and determine what is good information and what’s bad information at the time and what to listen to and then how to utilize that information to drive the machine correctly and safely through the orchard.

And really that’s nothing but time in the saddle. I mean, it was just a lot of trial and error testing, testing, testing, and, and luckily with the nature of our commercial spray business, we have kind of the perfect business in order to just get a lot of time and hours on those machines and then fine tune them as we went. 

So I would say that that was a huge challenge. The other challenge to all of this is, um, communications. So, connectivity between the machines and like an outside laptop computer to where you can have that employee supervising those machines. 

That’s another very difficult problem and we’ve put a lot of effort into that problem over the years and we’ve, we’ve done a tremendous job with it, honestly. But you know, there’s, there’s always room for improvement especially in areas that let’s say cell signal is non-existent or very weak we utilise kind of a combination of cell signal and a private radio network.

Uh, but that’s a very difficult problem to solve as well. So that’s one that we’re always working through.

[00:13:16] Mitchell Denton: Okay. Okay. So obviously working on the frontline, alongside farmers and suppliers, I was just wondering from where you stand, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points or blind spots in the food industry? 

[00:13:32] Gary Thompson: So, from where we are, it’s a hundred percent the availability of farm labour and that’s, you know, the reasoning behind developing the product that we’ve developed. I mean, by far that’s, that’s a huge problem and there is a, you know, somewhat of a misconception out there when it comes to autonomy that, you know, these machines are being built and they’re taking jobs away from people.

Where in reality, there’s a huge shortage of these types of labourers out there already. And that’s why this technology is being developed. Just to try to meet the needs, to grow the crops in a timely and a quality manner. 

And so, it was kind of apparent to me that problem is not just a California problem and maybe it’s us being in our own little world and we think that California’s got the worst labour situation in the United States. But, what amazed me is how many calls, emails, inquiries we were getting from just all over the world and other areas that their labor situations actually far worse than, than what California’s labour situation is.

And one of them a very large one is, is, you know, Australia. And we learned all about the challenges that you guys have in Australia with labour and the lack of it there. And all the temporary workers that come in and work for a while and then they are gone and then a new group comes in and work for a little bit and they’re gone and kind of the lack of quality of work that can come out of a lot of that labour and so very challenging for, for growers to deal with this problem. So hence the innovation and hence, you know, trying to come up with solutions for, um, growers to deal with these challenges.

[00:15:20] Mitchell Denton: Definitely, especially in light of things like the COVID pandemic just a huge blow to temporary workers kind of coming through Australia. We need this automated technology now more than ever really, continue on that train of thought. Has the COVID pandemic for better or worse, had any effect on your day to day operations? 

[00:15:42] Gary Thompson: So, yes, I’m kind of a little bit of both, honestly, good and bad. So I would say the bad of it is, is the supply chain, which, you know, everyone in the whole world is dealing with now. 

Um, we kind of thought when COVID first hit that 2020 was going to be bad, you know? Cause we started getting all these calls and emails from our vendors that we buy parts from, you know, engines or electronics or hydraulics, what have you. 

One by one, they started telling us, “Hey look, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if we can keep our factory running. We don’t know if we’re going to be able to ship you parts”. 

Well, 2020 actually worked pretty well for us. We were able to kind of eke out all the parts we needed before we needed them and it worked pretty well, but, um, 2021 is when the supply chain really started falling apart. 

And became very challenging and it still is to this day. Just trying to source those parts. So, the whole, um, just-in-time manufacturing has completely gone out the window. It’s now it’s, you know, horde parts where you can manufacture because you know, you, your machine, um, was made of all these parts and it just takes one of them to not be able to complete the machine and sell it to a customer.

So, having those parts is incredibly important. So, that’s definitely the challenge. The good point that’s come out of COVID. If you can say there’s any good about it, um, which there’s not, but kind of a positive effect that it’s had is just more demand for our machine. 

Uh, because as bad as the short labor situation was prior to COVID. I think COVID was a real wake-up call for a lot of the farmers and growers out there that, you know, wow, our or labour supply can be affected very easily by these things that are completely out of our control. 

Um, and COVID being one of them. When, when you just really had no idea who was going to show up to work today because, so-and-so is infected or so-and-so is in contact with, you know, another person that was infected and now they can’t come to work for two weeks or what have you.

I mean, it just became very difficult for these farmers to operate in that environment. So really got them thinking even farther down this road of, “Wow, that GUSS machine really has a place on our farm”.

[00:18:12] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s great. So, when it comes to food loss and sustainable farming, what’s the area that your team are most curious about moving forward? Where’s your time and research going?

[00:18:25] Gary Thompson: So, we’ve developed two models so far. Uh, one of them for kind of the larger trees and one of them for high density, orchards and vineyards, as well. 

And we’re really just always kind of thinking about, okay, what’s next? You know, we’ve developed this amazing technology. It’s, it’s solving a big problem for these growers.

So. You know, we’re going to continue pushing those products, very strongly. But we’re also looking at wow, this, this technology can really be adapted to, either different crops or to perform different tasks in the orchards and vineyards or, you know, what have you. So, so that’s a lot of it is we we’re continuing to innovate.

Um, we don’t ever want to get stagnant. Cause if you get stagnant, you’re going to start going backwards and then you’re, then you’re done. And the other part of it I’ll say is kind of like, tech add-ons to GUSS. When we first developed the machine, we very intentionally wanted to keep the quote unquote bells and whistles off of the machine.

[00:19:32] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. 

[00:19:32] Gary Thompson: Because we knew we were already kind of on a pretty high technologically, uh, level of uh, new innovation. So we didn’t want to over-complicate the machine coming out of the gate, but now that we’ve got a lot of machines out there, a lot of time under our belt, we’re starting to really look at a lot of add-on technologies that other AgTech, great AgTech companies are working on that let’s say for example, the, the machines out spraying an orchard and while it’s spraying, let’s also try to get the crop quality measured while the machine is going through the field or let’s get tree health measured, or try to figure out an estimated yield, um, just different technologies like that.

So now we’re doing more with every pass. Uh, so, and, and even as far as sensors, you know, where we’ve already kind of done some of this where you’re in a young orchard, and, um, you have sensors, that’ll see the small tree and turn the spray on and then turn the spray off for the gap in between the trees, just to minimise drift of the material.

Save, save that material. Also for weeds having, uh, sensors, that’ll see weeds and spray them like a spot spring technology. So, so these are the things that we’re really looking at and, um, what is gonna be actual real world benefits to that grower.

[00:21:01] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. You were mentioning that you were kind of keeping an eye on other groups and innovations in the industry. Is there anyone in particular that you’re keeping an eye on, whether they’re related to your field or not? 

[00:21:16] Gary Thompson: A big part of it. I would say Starlink, um, Elon Musk’s company, uh, for internet and cell service. So again, going back to the communications challenge, uh, that is, uh, a difficult challenge to solve and any new innovation that comes out that can either get cell reception into very remote regions.

We’re always, you know, looking hard into those types of technologies that, just, how can we make that as robust as possible on our machine? Um, outside of that, I don’t have a specific company in mind, but, well perhaps our, our new partners, John Deere, they own Blue River Technologies. 

And, uh, so camera tech, camera tech is huge in the autonomous space and it’s just amazing the new innovative things that are being worked on there to um be able to detect anything and everything and like plant species, for example. 

So instead of a sensor just saying, “Hey, there’s a weed or there’s something green, I’m going to spray it”. Now. It’s like determining the actual species of the weed and deciding whether it’s going to spray it versus something that’s a crop that doesn’t need to be sprayed.

So, yeah. 

[00:22:37] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. no, that’s great. So what’s one thing You wish you had known when you began your career in developing autonomous spray tech? 

[00:22:47] Gary Thompson: You know, I thinking about that question, we’re actually pretty happy that we didn’t know much of anything, uh, because I think a lot of what stifles innovation is thinking too much about a problem before you even start and talking yourself out of trying it. 

Cause, man, after what we’ve been through to get to this point, if we would’ve known probably half of it, we might’ve talked ourselves out of even building that first unit.

But sometimes I think that’s the best route is just to, just to kind of throw yourself into it and start going and kind of just solve those problems as they come about. And it’s just amazing those problems you can solve when they come to you and you just put your, your team, your efforts toward it.

Honestly, I, I wouldn’t have wanted to know too much of the challenges that we’ve had before getting going on this project.

[00:23:46] Mitchell Denton: Absolutely. It’s funny how many guests actually have a similar response? A lot of the people that are involved in the industry are, more often than not, if they knew the troubles that lay ahead of them, they probably would’ve never started, but, I’m, glad you will went in blind because you’re all doing great things.

So Gary, unfortunately we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just wanted to ask, what is the number one takeaway you really want the listeners to absorb from this episode? 

[00:24:18] Gary Thompson: Yeah. So, I think with all new technologies the best technologies are born out of a real world problem, you know, they’re, they’re made to solve a real issue and provide very good benefit for that. And then there’s a lot of technologies that are in search of a problem.

And every once in a while, those hit, but a lot of the times they just flat don’t. So our machine, you know, again, very specifically was designed because of our own pain point in our own business and it did it extremely well and luckily there’s for us, there’s enough other businesses that are having the same problem that we were.

So it’s been a big success for them as well. So, um, just really building a product that we did with, with that in mind and, uh, That kind of customer experience and the customer benefit is huge. 

And there’s a lot of buzz and a lot of excitement right now in Ag about autonomous machines. And I think it’s just really important to not just make something autonomous, just for the sake of making it autonomous, but to have a real benefit there, you know, and, and thats not as easy to do as it might seem at first glance.

But that’s kind of one of our, I’d say our biggest strength, so.

[00:25:47] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. no, that’s great. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening. And thank you, Gary, for joining me today.

[00:25:55] Gary Thompson: Yeah, thank you very much.

[00:25:57] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Gary and GUSS Automation, check out the link and the description of the episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast that you never miss an episode. 

And don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, a PostHarvest podcast.

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