Steve Saunders – Robotics Plus – Ep 45

Steve Saunders, CEO at Robotics Plus

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork,” we’re joined by Steve Saunders from Robotics Plus, who we’ll talk to about how his autonomous Food and Ag robots are helping optimise fresh produce handling.


[00:00:00] Mitch Denton: Hi there, 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 Steve Saunders from Robotics Plus, who I will be talking to about how their autonomous Food and Ag robots are helping optimise fresh produce handling. So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Hi there Steve. Thanks for joining us. How are you today?

[00:00:27] Steve Saunders: I’m good, thanks. I’m just back from the USA and, uh, an exciting time with the FIRA Robotics Conference, which is, uh, all around Agritech automation.

[00:00:37] Mitch Denton: Oh that’s fantastic. Well, Thank you for your time. Before we get into it though, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself and what you do and maybe a fun fact about yourself?

[00:00:46] Steve Saunders: Yeah, sure. Look, um, you know, I’m 36 years, actually a grower. So I, uh, left school when I was 17 and really started a career in horticulture. And worked my way through most aspects from nursery through to running orchards, uh, through to post harvest operations, packhouse cool stores, and, uh, did that in a very short timeframe before actually heading out and starting a string of, uh, successful horticultural companies, um, over the last probably 20 years. So yeah, just a real passion for growing. I think one of, one of the things for me really that, uh, inspired me around creating companies was the opportunity I had, um, when I actually was working for someone, um, sort of been involved in extension, so particularly out of the old math tech days in New Zealand where new products and kiwifruit like artificial pollination, uh, high cane, those sorts of things.

I was actually one of the first people in the industry to be, uh, uh, an extension user of those technologies and that really, opened my eyes to how you can adapt new things to do things better within the orchards. Yeah, so I’ve just had a great career and a great passion, you know, from owning a number of horticulture companies from the largest orchard management company in New Zealand.

We were running 150 kiwifruit farms to starting, uh, the world’s largest kiwifruit pollination company. Uh, so extracting pollen from male flowers. Uh, and then reapplying it to set better fruit to, uh, you know, being one of the founders of Mount Pack & Cool, which is now the largest privately owned kiwifruit packhouse.

It packs over 24 million trays of gold kiwifruit. Uh, and I was also the, uh, one of the integral investors. Uh, right at the very start of Rockit Apple, which is now a successful proprietary variety apple grown all around the world and making waves. And then I also did work around, uh, supporting Māori horticulture as well.

So I was one of the instigators for Miro, which is, uh a collective of over 27 Māori entities invested into growing blueberries, so yeah, lots of time in horticulture, but through all of that, I guess, uh, you know, I developed this passion for how technology is going to play a role in our future sustainability.

And fun fact for me is, uh, I think is 2007 I crossed the Gobi Desert on a blow cart, which is a startup that, uh, was based here in Tauranga where I live. Uh, so that’s like a land yacht and went from one side of the Gobi Desert to the other. So that was, uh, probably one of those, uh, real life changing things for me is that going out and challenging, putting myself in a challenge like that really opened my eyes to a lot of things, so.

[00:03:36] Mitch Denton: Is that one of those land kite surfing type devices? Am I thinking of the right thing?

[00:03:41] Steve Saunders: Yeah, it’s, it’s essentially a, uh, you’re on three wheelbarrow wheels, essentially, and, and a sail, and you’re laying down in a pod and yeah, so, you know, we can reach speeds of a hundred kilometres an hour on three wheelbarrow wheels.

[00:03:54] Mitch Denton: Oh wow.

[00:03:55] Steve Saunders: So, yeah, a lot of fun. And that was 12 people from around the world got together and we, we did that. So it was a mixture of few of us Kiwis, uh, English, French, Spanish, and Dutch. So it was, uh, you know, first people in the world to, I guess, land sail across the Gobi Desert. So that was pretty cool.

[00:04:12] Mitch Denton: It’s so awesome, I’d love to do that. But let’s stay focused here. So, you mentioned it a little bit before, but could you share us the inspiration behind the creation of Robotics Plus and the company’s vision for the future of agriculture?

[00:04:26] Steve Saunders: Yeah. Look, Robotics Plus came about, um, you know, I built Grow Plus, which was a, uh, large kiwifruit orchard management company. We were probably the first large sort of independent management group that came out in the Kiwifruit industry and it was, it was at a time of change when it didn’t make sense to have full time orchard managers on small orchards.

So we, we sort of contracted that service back to growers and that further built into supplying all the machinery, doing all the spraying, doing all the agronomy, supplying all the labour, uh, you know, and really growing top quality crops. And we can consistently produce better yields than the industry average as a management company.

So, but during that time, when I grew up, it was all about plant management. But what I could see was this change where labour was even becoming challenging back in the early 2000s and, uh, particularly around the 2008 onwards, labour was becoming a challenge and our management started becoming more about managing labour than actually managing the, the vines.

So how could we get the best out of labour, uh, to get a result? So, you know, our orchard managers were becoming more about managing a people rather than managing of, of actual vines to some degree, so I could, I could see that pain point, um, continuing at times, and particularly with the peak requirements of labour at certain times of the year, and I think that’s one of the fundamentals is, I think if everything was smooth, labour would be no problem, but in horticulture, we have these peaks where we need a lot of labour for short periods of time, and that’s really hard to manage.

Um, so I got sort of interest in what was happening in robotics and automation, and went looking around the New Zealand universities, and I think that was about in 2008, um, I found Alistair Scarfe, who’s a co founder of Robotics Plus, I found him at, uh, Massey University, and he’d just finished a degree in mechatronics, uh, with first class honours, and sort of spoke with him and he wanted to do a PhD in industrial automation.

So, so I supported him in that PhD and we did that project on, you know, could we harvest kiwifruit robotically? And quietly behind the scenes I said to him, if you can prove to me that we could pick a kiwifruit on an autonomous platform in a, in an orchard, we’ll start a global robotics company and we’ll really go and solve some of these complex challenging problems.

So, that was really the foundation of it. So Alistair did his PhD and, um, completed that in around 2013. So Robotics Plus really started more around the 2013 / 2014 mark, not, not 2008. I registered the company, but it was really about supporting Alastair in his PhD. And I had a few other robotic projects going on with some other people I’ve met around as well, which is where the genesis for the Aporo Apple Packer stemmed from.

[00:07:28] Mitch Denton: Yeah, okay. Well, on that note, can you tell us about the Aporo Fruit Packer and how it revolutionises the fruit packing industry?

[00:07:36] Steve Saunders: I’ll just, I’ll just expand one little bit on, on the vision for, for our robotics and automation and really for us that is, you know, our vision there is, is really about replacing those repetitive, dull, dangerous, dirty jobs. So, There’s a lot of automation already but for us, it’s, it’s that last point of where labour stands, where it’s probably more complex, where you’re out in an environment like an orchard.

So, if you can imagine, you know, industrial robotics in a warehouse, uh, stacking boxes or cartons, or even, uh, automated car building factories, you know, parts come to a robot, robot does a task and it goes to the next robot. But when you go into horticulture, you’re actually going out into complex environments where you’ve got poles, structures, you’ve got trees that grow in different shapes, you’ve got fruit that hang in different positions, you’ve got weather, you’ve got mud, you’ve got terrain, you’ve got so many complex challenges that you, you, you have to solve.

So, so that’s a, has always been a big focus for us as, you know, taking automation into the field. Uh, we see that as a, you know, one of the most complex challenging areas, but we also built things like the Aporo to, to demonstrate how technology can work.

And the focus of the Aporo Fruit Packer was really about where you had people standing on a hard concrete floor all day at the end of a packing line, just putting apples and rotating apples with the best colour side up and orientating the stem and calyxes to look You know, presentable in the tray, and that’s really hard work standing there eight to ten hours a day standing on a rubber mat on a concrete floor, and that’s all you’re doing.

It’s very repetitive, it’s very mundane in terms of job satisfaction, and it wasn’t about replacing jobs either, it was, you know, most pack houses struggle to get the labour to fill those, those positions. So, you know, had been, been a packhouse owner, I know what it’s like. We could have 200 people on our books to get 100 people turn up on a given day, if, um, that makes sense.

So, so for us was really tackling that really mundane stuff and creating better jobs for people within the pack house, like more quality control and other things. So, so that technology was about really at the end of the grader. So you might’ve had the grader systems that sorted the fruit and sent the fruit down lanes and drop them, drop them into packing lines, uh, at the very end where people stood and did the last thing.

So our focus there was to replace that job. Um, so the Aporo goes at the end of the line, uh, where the fruit comes off the grader. And, using cameras and artificial intelligence and robotics, we’re able to stem and calyx orientate the fruit, pick that fruit up, rotate it to whatever degree, angle you want the stem and the calyx to face, and put the best colour side up for presentation.

And being able to do that at the speed of humans or, or faster and consistently day in, day out. So, so that was really the genesis for Aporo, so where you might have had two to three labour units, we could get that down to one labour unit. So, you know, making a significant saving to the pack house, uh, in terms of labour requirement and that piece of the operation.

[00:10:54] Mitch Denton: Oh, that’s brilliant. To take the conversation in a different direction, though, can you tell us a little bit about the Unmanned Ground Vehicle and what tasks the UGV can perform to enhance productivity and reduce manual labour in farming operations?

[00:11:09] Steve Saunders: Yeah, sure. Our UGV, which is, by the way, is now named Prospr.

[00:11:13] Mitch Denton: Oh, great. Prospr. I love that name.

[00:11:15] Steve Saunders: Yeah, we’ve given it a name because Unmanned Ground Vehicle wasn’t very sexy, but.

Um, so, we’ve sort of named it Prospr, which is, you know, really about it being a machine that offers Prosprity to, to our farmers and the opportunity, um, you know, yeah, it’s really the opportunity to prosper I guess is, is, is why we came up with that name.

But essentially, when we did Aporo, that was about our first project that for us tested that we could build a robotic machine that had a great return on investment for the customer. It was solving a real problem. We designed it and then we were able to you know productionise it and take it to the world and we’ve got machines and countries all over the world now all running really really well, and then we also have done some, um, some smart machines around port automation, particularly in the forestry industry.

And that was another one that we work with the customer to solve a specific problem. And, uh, you know, we’ve now got these robotic scalers on most of the ports in New Zealand. But our long term goal has always been around our, um, autonomous vehicle in the field.

And what the focus of building a truly multi-use autonomous vehicle, and by autonomous it means that this machine does not have a seat, a steering wheel, it’s, it’s fully autonomous. We, we fly a drone over the orchard once we map the orchard. We can load that into our software system and we can plan tasks on that map, like, uh, which blocks we want it to spray or, uh, in the future do a number of other tasks.

So, the idea of this vehicle is, um, yeah, it’s getting people again, getting people out of the dirty, dangerous environments, getting them out of the spray environment where one operator could operate a number of these machines by monitoring on the edges of, of the orchard, as opposed to being in amongst the spray, if that makes sense.

And then it was also about creating smart technology on the sprayer as well. So our vehicle is, uh, is a fully electric vehicle, um, but it’s powered by a diesel generator, essentially a 74 horsepower diesel engine that drives a power generator. So we get the benefit of full electrics, and we get, significant reductions in fuel consumption.

So, we’re estimating for doing the same task, estimating around 70 percent savings in fuel. So we’re really working towards that sustainable goal, that, um, carbon zero. The reason we’ve gone hybrid is, battery technology at the moment, in our view is not good enough to run long operational hours when you’re putting it under load.

So, for us, the hybrid system was a more practical approach from an operational perspective and later on when battery technology gets good enough the vehicle’s already electric, we can just take the engine block out and put a big battery in there or if biofuels for example do become more common like hydrogen or biofuels from forestry or whatever, uh, wherever they might come from, we could convert the diesel engine into a biofuel machine.

So we sort of took a middle of the road approach in terms of the way we power it, but everything on that vehicle is full electric. There is not a grease nipple on that machine, there is not a hydraulic hose on that machine, even the sprayers are electrified and all the tools we’re working on like weeders and different things for vineyards and apple orchards will all be electric so that we’re just really getting rid of oils and those sort of fossil fuel things.

Then if you think about the proposition, there also is, um, you know, we’re minimising maintenance, there’s no greasing, there’s no hydraulic hose leaks to fix, very simple 74 horsepower diesel engine service. Everything else is in a modular basis, the electric drive systems are sealed for life. So, you know, um, if there’s a fault with one of those, you just replace the electric drive system. Uh, the compute brain on the machine is a module. So if there’s a problem there, you just unplug it, unbolt it, slap another one in and boot it up and off you go.

So we’ve really focused coming, coming from being a grower, really focused on super ease around keeping the operational uptime at the highest level, that’s really important to farmers.

[00:15:27] Mitch Denton: So then what are some of the challenges that the team at Robotics Plus has had to face when developing your technology?

[00:15:33] Steve Saunders: Yeah, it’s, it’s a good one. I mean, challenges generally, um, as I described earlier, is, is a lot of the different configurations of orchards, the shapes of orchards, row widths, posts, growing structures. So, you know, it’s really challenging as an AgTech company as to what are you trying to solve the problem for? You trying to solve the problem for a 3D grown apple tree, or a 2D grown apple tree, or a V trellis, or a wall fruit or a freestanding tree?

You know, we had to do a lot of work to say, where is the trend heading? And, you know, what we’re seeing globally is more and more apples are becoming, uh. Apple growing, for example, is becoming more structured in the way they grow. I think a lot of the big companies now are growing for automation because you know, automation is not something that’s going to fix an inefficient system or a bad problem.

Automation is something that can enhance a good system. So, there’s this need around, um, you know, Growers need to sort of think about how they transform and grow for automation as well. So luckily in the Apple industry, a lot of growers are creating 2D grown trellis systems.

It really opens the door for robotic harvesting, more precision farming from, from scanning, more precision farming from spraying. So, you know, we, we’ve sort of gone down the track of really working towards the more modern growing systems, because we see that as the future and then being able to build our robotic systems to sort of support those future growing systems as opposed to some of the older growing systems of the past.

And then we, we have things like slopes, muds, you know, things you learn like, you know, America has gophers and they make holes in the ground and, um, you know, you got different rocky soils and sandy soils and muddy soils and then you get the wettest year on record.

So it’s, uh, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s really been a lot about time in the field and really learning about these different environments and being able to tune the machine and the great thing about our autonomous vehicle mechanically, it’s fantastic. It’s, it’s like all wheel drive. It’s like permanent diff lock on all wheels, you know, so it’s like a modern European car where each wheel’s got its own drive and sense.

So these things can, these things are quite incredible in terms of their torque and their ability to work between the different wheels to get out of different situations, probably much, much better than, than sort of tractors in some respect. And so mechanically we, um, you know, we’ve built a really solid machine where, where the magic is, is really around the software, it’s really a software platform now, which allows you this ability to continue to fine tune the machine.

So, you know, if we find, uh, you know, we find a new row structure or some new obstacles we haven’t seen before, you know, that’s just about spending a bit of time on with the sensors and the software to just work out how do you work around that.

So, um, we can, we can build these wins quite quickly. So what’s been important to us has just been, you know, having a really great software team and having a really good computing system and sensing system on board the vehicle. And that’s also important for machine safety as well. You know, obviously you don’t have a driver on these things now, so you know you’ve got a real responsibility around object detection and avoidance and safety systems on these things as well.

[00:18:57] Mitch Denton: Yeah. I’d imagine the safety systems around robotics is a bit of a dicey scenario to navigate. So then, taking a step away from the solutions that Robotics Plus is providing to the industry, what in your opinion represents one of the main challenges or pain points in the fight against food loss and waste?

[00:19:16] Steve Saunders: I think that’s a really good question. Food waste for me can be on orchard, but it can also be a lot in the supply chain. So I think the way we approach it is optimising the quality of the fruit on the tree, which minimises waste from an orchard perspective.

And, and being able to dial in more consistent crops for growers and more timely applications of things to protect the fruit to give a better outcome. I think that’s for us is where a lot more of the big impact is, I think. You know, once you go into the cool store and supply chain, that’s, that’s a whole different and I think that’s where a lot of food waste sort of occurs more from after it’s been picked and put into the cool store, that supply chain.

But I’d probably turn it around and say the challenge at the moment, the way I see for farmers is, people can’t afford to pay a lot more for this fruit. Buying fruit and veggies for most families is expensive now and the costs of producing food is rising dramatically.

Um, you know, farmers are really, really struggling. You know, if you think about places like America, the big scaled operations and they run on making small margin on, on large scale and the pressure on cost is becoming really, really hard for growers, you know, if you think about the California laws where they’re having to pay time and a half after 40 hours.

And I think that reduces down to 38 and a half hours. Uh, the same laws are happening in Washington. You’re seeing minimum wages rising here. You’re seeing New Zealand farmers struggling to get labour. You’re seeing Australian farmers paying well over 30 dollars an hour for labour. So there’s this huge cost pressure on growers.

So, you know, really our vision and what we’re trying to do is, you know, how can we reduce that cost pressure? Um, you know, one thing about a robot, once you solve a problem, it can spray. It’s a fixed cost as opposed to labour, which can continually be going up. For us, it’s about trying, how can we help fix some of those pain points to, to allow growers to remain sustainable, be able to bank on fixing that cost at that point in the supply chain.

So that’s where the real drive is going, particularly from the growing side is, is really about. It’s that, it’s that pressure on, on costs, resource, labour, um, it’s, it’s really challenging. And a lot of the people can’t find the labour either, so that makes it even harder. And that can drive things like crops not being picked on time or missing sprays, which then the crop deteriorates, and therefore they’re only packing out 60 percent of the fruit they pick, for example. That’s just, that’s your food waste, right? That’s, there’s a 40 percent of what they grow doesn’t, doesn’t go to a consumer because it doesn’t look good enough or doesn’t meet the standards for a retailer.

So if we can optimise those packouts, we can minimise those labour risks, we can fix those costs, that’s where we really see automation playing a big role. And I think we’re just on the brim of adoption of these technologies now it’s, it’s, it’s, you know, being an AgTech provider is a hard space, you know, grower adoption is a challenging thing because growers have done things the same way for a long time, and you’re coming along with some new thing that drives along without a driver, it’s, it’s quite a new, new thing to think, and it’s also, you’ve got to change the way you operate, there’s things you have to change in your systems about the way you grow, but, you know, what we’re seeing is we’re starting to see the adoption of these technologies starting to move.

I think we’re really at the start of a exciting evolution in growing, uh, where I think these technologies are advancing, technology in general is advancing and it’s allowing this Ag technology to advance more to a point where we’re starting to see adoption starting to happen in that field.

[00:23:09] Mitch Denton: Yeah, I agree. I feel like the technology is advancing so much that the industry is really looking to rejig and reshape the way that processes are done and mass adoption really is taking place, so that’s really cool. So, as we come to a close, Steve, I just wanted to ask you, what is the major point you really want the listeners to take away from this episode?

[00:23:31] Steve Saunders: Um, yeah, that’s a good, good question. I’m a passionate grower. So I guess for me is, you know, growing these fresh food for people is actually really challenging. And I think people understanding how hard it is to actually produce that food that often it’s not often that’s not the farmer that’s necessarily putting the pricing of food on people, you know, there’s a retailers take a fairly good margin and the growing systems. But I think the message for us is that growers are actually really passionate about supplying food for people. And it’s really, really challenging for growers to do that in the current environments.

And, the pressures coming from minimum wage and wage increases and there’s a lot of people who just don’t like doing these jobs anymore. So, people want to go to the cities, they want to, they want to be podcasters or, uh, um, website developers or, you know, even greater inspirational things.

So I think the, um, you know, I think that the big message is that, you know, that the support and adoption. of Ag Technologies, I think is really, really crucial if we’re going to want to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables in the future. Because, you know, people just don’t want to do that, that dull, dirty, dangerous work, you know, they have, um, better inspirations, uh, aspirations, I should say that, uh, and what they want to do.

And, you know, I just think in general, being an AgTech company is a really tough space. It’s not hugely scalable like selling iPhones, it’s quite crop specific and, um, you know, it takes time to build adoption and takes time to build scale. So, you know, I just think all across, you know, we need to support farmers, we need governments and funds to support AgTech companies. I think, the end of the day, you know, feeding people in the world is an important thing.

[00:25:21] Mitch Denton: Absolutely. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening and thank you Steve for joining me today.

[00:25:30] Steve Saunders: Thanks. My pleasure.

[00:25:32] Mitch Denton: If you’d like to know more about Steve and Robotics Plus, check out the link in the description of this episode. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so 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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