The global agricultural industry is currently experiencing its biggest disruption yet, as farmers continue to see the benefits of smart farming and technology to increase crop yields, lower labor costs, and accompany the world’s growing demand for food.
“Farming is an industry that has seen little progress since the advent of the tractor, and it’s time for farmers to enjoy the same advancements in technology as others,” said Daniel Aronovitz, Vice President at Insight Partners.
For this reason and others, the leading global private equity and venture capital firm recently led a $37 million Series B round in an Israeli robot-as-a-service firm that is revolutionizing the farming world by transforming one of its oldest resources — a tractor — into an autonomous vehicle.
Entrée Capital co-led this Series B after having seeded Blue White Robotics and participated in its Series A round. They are joined by Clal Insurance, Jesselson Family Office, Peregrine VC, and Regah Ventures who also made significant contributions in this round.
Founded in 2017 by Ben Alfi, Yair Shahar, and Aviram Shmueli, a group of Israeli Air Force veterans, Blue White Robotics began as a platform that connects multiple autonomous systems (both air and ground-based) to real-world applications. The platform is designed to collect data, provide actionable insights, and improve efficiency and safety for large operations in the fields of urban mobility, first response, and agriculture, using robots and autonomous solutions.
Blue White Robotics wants to create a “cohesive experience” across farming operations year-round, from sprays and harvesting to disking and seeding, by refitting existing infrastructure with intelligent autonomous algorithms through their robot tractors. The robot tractors improve farm productivity, precision, and worker safety.
The Blue White Robotics platform collects and distributes data that creates new services to increase yields and reduce inputs for the growing autonomous operation.
“What we are focusing mainly on now is our autonomous farm product, which basically takes the existing tractors that the farmer uses, converts them to robots, operates the robots through our software platform, and enables him to optimize the fleet to decrease the amount of people he needs. One guy can operate all the vehicles in the farm to collect data and share data more easily, to have better visibility of everything that’s going on. And of course, improve the safety of the farm,” Alon Ascher, US general manager and VP of Business Development tells NoCamels.
Ascher explains that the process to convert tractors into robots involves installing the company’s “robust” hardware and software kit. The kit can be adjusted to any manufacturer, whether it’s a John Deere tractor or a Kubota. “It knows how to handle the different implements that the tractors are using,” says Ascher, “For example, spraying, mowing, disking, dusting — all the different tasks that the normal drive would do.”
“At the end of the day, something that is very crucial about our solution is that we provide robots as a service. We provide an end-to-end adoption process because it’s one thing to build a good product that meets the needs of the farmer and it’s another to escort the farmer/client throughout the process of transforming his farm from a regular to an autonomous one,” adds Ascher.
Blue White Robotics’ solution is for permanent crops, which usually means trees and shrubs or any crops produced from plants that last for many seasons rather than being replanted after each harvest. They target orchard and vineyards and have based their company in the US because that is the main market, says Ascher.” The company currently has a dozen or so clients around the world, he adds.
“The main market that suffers from labor shortages and increasing labor costs is the US, especially the West Coast,” says Ascher. “California is the dominant global permanent crops producer.”
While the company is currently based in Fresno, California, Ascher says that Washington state, Florida, and New York are also ripe for permanent crops, though on a different scale. Still, California has the biggest areas and many serious issues with its crops.
Other states in the US, like Washington State or Florida, or New York, for example, are on a different scale. There are millions of acres here in the central valley of California that are filled with permanent crops. I would say that this is the biggest [amount of land] but also the strongest problem. Other than that, Australia suffers from that, Europe, Asia and most of the Western world.”
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“So definitely that’s why we focus on California, where we have a big and growing team here in our Fresno offices and are working with eight top growers,” he says.
While the company is currently focusing on California, it has already started projects in its home country and will continue to do so.
“In Israel, we are providing autonomous farming for a small amount of growers. We really believe in deploying the technology in Israel to assist Israeli growers as well as Israeli technology. We really believe in working in partnership with different Israeli architect technologies and companies to build a stronger ecosystem, but also a stronger solution for growers.
Shift to autonomous farming vehicles
When NoCamels last wrote about Blue White Robotics in late 2020, it was to announce that the Israeli firm would open a command and control center at the Tech Garden in Syracuse, New York. The company was also assisting Brooklyn’s Easy Aerial, a company that designs and manufactures autonomous drones and ground control systems and Dropcopter from Syracuse, which develops aerial pollination capabilities, as part of the solution to the global bee crisis in partnership with Cornell University.
The focus then was on unmanned aerial vehicles and urban mobility and had announced their interest in expanding their presence in New York state in 2019 by partnering with local companies to service the state’s agriculture, transportation and first responder markets.
The company was part of the NAAMA project in Israel to test systems in order to create a national drone delivery network, where they demonstrated their Soteria system allowing for autonomous 24/7 control of a large number of drones for different tasks in the same airspace. And they partnered with STEngineering to provide autonomous transportation to personnel at Bar Ilan University and conducted other shuttle pilots. In early 2020, the company launched a shuttle service for Sheba-Tel Hashomer Medical Center.
So why the pivot to autonomous farming solutions?
“The founders and a few other team members from our management, including myself, are Israeli Air Force veterans who spent many years in developing and operating autonomous systems on a large scale,” explains Ascher, “So we looked for ways to implement these technologies in different markets. We started working in urban mobility and landscape, mainly with the Israeli government to assist in the adoption of autonomous technologies. We have many projects that we are still managing in the Israeli test center for autonomous and smart transportation.”
“What we realized is that agriculture is the most appropriate industry or market for autonomy. One of the reasons is that there’s a huge need. And then there’s a huge labor shortage and its a crisis around the world,” he adds.
Ascher admits that while labor availability is getting lower, labor costs are getting higher. The demand is also getting higher, he says. Meanwhile, regulations in farming and landscape are more accessible and permitting for operations in an agricultural field and it’s easier to operate robots in the large expansive space of a farm.
“The fact that missions are planned in advance — you know when you need to spray, when you need to mow, when you need to do different tasks — you can plan ahead. This brought us to a significant understanding that the agriculture market has matured,” he says.
Last but not least, there is a nice, positive side effect for the farmers.
“We kind of like to encourage new talent to come back to farming, because all of a sudden there is a position in the company for a robotic fleet manager or robotic operator. Ben, our CEO, likes to call it making agriculture sexy again. All these guys that are now running from agriculture to work in high-tech companies — now they have a reason to come back, to maybe continue the family business and continue the tradition. But it’s in a 21st century way.”