As a society, we’ve been infatuated with robots for the past fifty years. From the Jetsons to the Terminator series on the big screen, from robots that vacuum our floors to robots that interact with our children, this obsession has captured the attention and the minds of both entrepreneurs and consumers. Even before the first personal computer was developed, we have dreamed of a future consisting of robots that can co-exist with humans, robots that can help us make informed decisions, and most importantly, robots that can help us complete time consuming and laborious tasks.
Thanks to billions of dollars of investments into areas like L4/L5 self-driving car technologies and warehouse robotics, the robots are now ready to start working in closer conjunction with humans in a wide variety of fields. Robotic arms have become much more cost competitive, research universities have pushed machine learning and deep learning algorithms to new levels of performance and efficiency, and companies like Nvidia have made AI computing much more pervasive. We are reaching an interesting point where these advancements finally have the potential to augment the labor forces in many traditional industries, and maybe even help solve some significant labor issues that are right around the corner. We call this Autonomous Labor. With the growing number of labor issues surrounding accessibility and affordability, autonomous labor appears to be a fruitful path that is worth exploring.
Autonomous labor offers the potential for companies to achieve better unit economics by cutting down labor cost and increasing efficiency. However, thanks to Hollywood’s depiction of a world where humans coexist with robots, there has always been a fear surrounding the implementation of automation. The main concerns stem mostly from the threat of “AI software taking over” as well as the concern that robots will eliminate human jobs that are obviously very important to the overall strength of the economy. And in many examples, human coexistence with robots is often not friendly.
Our take is that automation and robotics should not be utilized to eliminate jobs, but instead, should be used to provide assistance to existing human labor. If implemented correctly, autonomous labor will not only benefit the companies employing them, but could replace traditional back-breaking work with more suitable, labor friendly jobs. We are still in the early days of autonomous labor implementation, but thankfully, there are already many applications across many different industries like farming, long-haul trucking, lawn mowing, warehouse logistics, and even manufacturing. Let’s take a deeper look into one of the areas we are excited about.
Automation On The Farm
In the United States, there are over two million farms that take up over 900 million acres of farmland. Farming accounts for over 47% of the total land in the continental US. And even though there are over a million employees who work on farmlands, some farms still can’t get enough labor to support their harvesting seasons. Rising domestic wages, higher costs and additional complexities associated with foreign labor workers (H2A visa program), and challenges related to finding enough labor workers to harvest on a regular schedule are placing a huge toll on our farmers. This is particularly painful for specialty crop farmers that harvest berries, grapes, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables. These specialty crop farmers pay up to $30,000 per acre per year for labor, or 650 times more than harvesting corn. As a result, many of these farmers are starting to consider contracting the number of acres they plant in the United States and even planting and harvesting more specialty crops in Mexico, which would have a huge impact on specialty crop supply, pricing, and the associated local economies.
This is an area that we believe is a prime candidate for autonomous labor. Last year, we made a seed investment in Advanced Farm, whose mission is to build a family of products that can help farmers harvest specialty crops. Their first product, aimed at aiding in the arduous process of harvesting strawberries, is already in deployment on multiple farms in California, the largest strawberry producing state in the country. Their first harvester will use robotic arms and computer vision to identify and pick ripe strawberries more efficiently, and at a bruise rate no worse, than humans. Furthermore, the harvester can run for hours a day and even operate at night (when the berries are firmer and less prone to bruising).
Autonomous labor will help increase productivity (which is crucial during harvesting season when berries need to be picked every three days) and has the potential to change the labor dynamic on the farm as well as how specialty crops are planted in the fields. Instead of having workers conduct the back-breaking labor of hand picking strawberries in the fields, many jobs could shift towards more of a focus on sorting and packaging, which is a far less physically demanding process and can be accomplished under covering and in the shade. In addition, farmers could plant more crops per acre and increase their output by 15–25% by eliminating a lot of furrows between the planting beds that are needed for carts to move the berries to the trucks. With a robotics solution, strawberries could be picked and transported directly to a central sorting and packing station in preparation for transportation.
Just today, Advanced Farm announced their Series A, with Yamaha Motor Ventures as the lead, along with a significant investment from Kubota and a big re-up from Catapult. We are incredibly proud of what this team has accomplished, especially going from concept to commercially viable prototype in an extremely time and capital efficient manner. And we look forward to working closely with Nolan Paul from YMV, who joins the board of Advanced Farm and just happens to know a thing or two about specialty crops!
Autonomous labor is an important area where we’ve had strong enough conviction to invest behind some key technology solutions addressing big gaps in some massive industries. In addition to Advanced Farm, we’ve invested in Starsky Robotics (automated trucking), Elroy Air (autonomous VTOL for cargo delivery), and Left Hand Robotics (automated industrial lawn mowing and snow clearing.)
We continue to be on the lookout for industries that are facing difficult labor dynamics, and specifically, industries that can’t find enough human labor. If an intelligent robotics solution can do repetitive tasks better, do them more consistently, and do them more efficiently, then we’ve found a great candidate for an autonomous labor investment. Our focus will always be to let the robots do what they do best and let the humans do what we do best. And through this dynamic, find the harmony where robots, under the control of humans, and not vice versa, can provide meaningful value to society.