CONTRIBUTOR
Contributing Writer,
Techstrong Group

Agricultural operations around the world, making up a massive market that long has been a very manual endeavor, are embracing robotics and automation as a way to more efficiently grow and harvest crops, tend to cattle, run businesses and address a persistent labor problem.

A year-old startup now has more money to help muscle its way into an increasingly crowded agricultural robotics space that is looking to meet the growing demand for the technology. Bonsai Robotics, which develops computer-vision automation systems that can be retrofitted onto existing machines, this week announced $10.5 million in a round of seed funding, bringing the amount raised to date by the company to $13.5 million.

The money raised – led by Acre Venture Partners and including Serra Ventures, E14, Congruent, Fall Line Capital, SNR Ventures and Andros – will be used by the company to accelerate its product roadmap, hire more people and expand its marketing and sales operations.

The influx of funds will help Bonsai compete in a global agricultural robotic market that is expected to grow from $13.5 billion market this year to more than $40 billion by 2028, focusing initially in the orchard space – even more specifically, nut trees – and giving the company room to see what other vectors its technology can fit into.

“We see Bonsai revolutionizing the orchard industry, an industry that has had massive mechanization improvements but has lacked developments in the precision ag space (e.g. GPS auto steer, yield monitoring, rate control, etc.) due to the challenging environment [like dust and a lack of GPS] especially in harvest,” Bonsai co-founder and CEO Tyler Niday told Techstrong.ai.

Starting in the Orchards

Nut orchards are a perfect environment in which Bonsai can start. These are areas where typical autonomy systems that use GPS, LiDAR, time-of-flight sensors, reliable cell connectivity, and similar technologies don’t work consistently and where dust, rain and snow are common.

Instead, the company uses an AI-based SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) stack and data collected on tens of thousands of acres of orchards for its Visionsteer, a retrofitting kit that partner OEMs can use to install automated steering capabilities on vehicles.

Bonsai used the data collected from the orchards and “built a vision system that enables the re-creation of the 3D world around the machine and localizes it – from vision – in real time,” said Niday, who co-founded the San Jose, California, company with Ugur Oezdemir. “Our AI SLAM stack recognizes its environment, even in difficult conditions like heavy dust, and can safely navigate through challenging, unmapped, conditions, very similar to how a human drives.”

He added that Bonsai’s technology is an “enabler to more sustainable and regenerative practice. Our 30MP of cameras collect individual tree data on every pass of the orchard – over 30 passes per year – to create actionable insights and revolutionize orchard management.”

Bonsai already counts orchard machinery makers Orchard Machinery Corp. (OMC) and Flory Industries as OEM partners, which helps the startup separate itself from others in the agricultural robotics field.

“We differentiate by using more software and machine learning and less hardware which allows us to operate in harsher conditions than other autonomy systems – a big deal in agriculture – and also it makes the solution cheaper and easier to maintain,” he said. “Our traction comes from partnering with the existing equipment manufacturing and distribution channel.”

Steering the Shockwave X

OMC’s Shockwave X machine is the first to use Bonsai’s Visionsteer technology, which essentially allows the harvester to be used autonomously, with no human drivers. According to a promotional video from OMC, the Shockwave X can shake eight to nine trees free of nuts every minute and identify tree damage along the way. Such data points are turning heads, Tiday said.

“We have had a large amount of interest from manufacturers and hundreds of units committed from our current partners,” he said. “Our technical approach enables new ways of working, not previously seen in the orchard by any manufacturer or grower. … The autonomous Shockwave X doubles the harvest speed without an operator.”

Visionsteer includes an automotive-grade camera, a compute and networking box, and wire harness. It is designed to enable the machinery to avoid collisions and has a path accuracy of 8 inches.

Bonsai’s founders are not planning to stop in the nut orchards. The ability for its technology to be retrofitted onto systems and run without the need of GPS and other auto-steering tools can be used in a range of industries that need off-road autonomy capabilities.

“Our technology is well-suited for off road, GPS denied operations, and adverse conditions – rain, snow, dust, debris,” Niday said. “As such, our stack is applicable to several industries beyond agriculture, including construction, mining and others.”