Australian startup thingc Robotics expects to deliver its first commercial agricultural robot in 18 months. But first thingc is planning to start field trials with 3 to 5 units in about 6 months. The startup wants to offer farmers a fully electric robotic platform, on which they can use the tools of their choice.
Founder Cameron Leeson likes to call thingc’s work ‘building a workforce on demand for farmers’. “Essentially we build autonomous vehicles for the farm”, he says. “People no longer have to sit on tractors all day. Autonomous vehicles can carry out all sorts of tasks. And once you teach a robot to do something well, you don’t have to do that with other robots. You just replicate it. And a robot is very reliable. It never gets sick and keeps on going.”
Real opportunity in field robotics
Cameron joined Sprout X, an Australian company that offers assistance to agtech startups, just over 2 years ago. “Our background was in drones”, he says. “We were interested in where we could find applications in agriculture. But when we delved a bit deeper we saw a real opportunity in field robotics.”
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For its prototype, thingc used as much off the shelf components as possible. - Photos: thingc Robotics
Cameron and his colleagues found that the technology of drones and robotics is quite similar. “It evolved from that. We built our first prototype at the start of 2018. After we validated what we wanted to achieve, we applied to the startup accelerator HAX, backed by venture fund SOSV in the United States, and they offered us some investment support.”
It essentially looks like a couple of bicycles strapped together
The thingc team worked together with HAX in their Chinese office in Shenzhen. “They took us on and we took the team over to China”, says Cameron. “We spent 6 months developing our machines. With the prototype that we have now, we basically got as much off the shelves as we could. That way we were able to keep the costs low and it made the robot easier to manufacture. It essentially looks like a couple of bicycles strapped together.”
Cameron emphasises that the time spent in China gave thingc the opportunity to develop the platform further.” We have since been able to optimise it, discovering how to best navigate it through the field and refine all aspects of it.”
thingc plans to build lightweight robots. “And it’s a flexible platform”, Cameron explains. “You can add all sorts of technology like mowing, spraying, or mechanical weeding. Everything is designed in such a way that we can plug and play components. A farmer does not want to wait for a technician to come and solve a problem. Is there is a failure in a component, you just pull it out and plug a new one in.”
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Cameron Leeson, founder of thingc Robotics: "It's a flexible platform. "You can add all sorts of technology like mowing, spraying or mechanical weeding."
The startup, based in Melbourne, is currently raising funds. It is also offering participation in field trials for early customers. “We are looking at a limited program”, Cameron says. “So we will start with a small number of customers for our first production run.”
thingc brought its prototype over to the Techspo conference in the Australian town of Wagin earlier this year. “We had a lot of interest there from farmers”, explains Cameron. “And from there I took the robot on a roadtrip to several places in New South Wales and Victoria. We have received a lot of positive feedback from farmers about our concept.”
We believe the drivetrain of the future is electric
The goal of the roadtrip was partly to understand what applications farmers are looking for. Cameron: “After that we started talks with tool manufacturers. How they can build a tool for our robot that they would usually put on a tractor. The top 3 applications we are interested in, are mower decks, precision spraying systems and mechanical weeding tools.”
Robot platform is fully electric
The robot platform is fully electric. “We believe the drivetrain of the future is electric”, says Cameron. “It will also give farmers the ability to be self-sufficient with their energy needs. We are aiming for batteries that will keep the robot going for 4 to 6 hours. Farmers can then do a battery swap. With 2 battery swaps, you have an 18 hour operation. And while you are running the robot you obviously have time to recharge the batteries without using a rapid charging system. That will make the batteries last a lot longer. In the long run we are thinking of docking stations.”
For navigation and applications such as precision spraying, the robot has an optical system on board. “We are also using other sensors, so it is a combination of both”, explains Cameron. “And we are looking at building lighter smaller sized robots. They are much smaller than for example the ones SwarmFarm builds. Our robots are probably half the size.”
Farmers can have multiple machines running, managed by one person. “I expect that will be the case on the majority of farms in the future”, says Cameron. “They come at such a low cost, compared to the heavy farm equipment that you see now most of the time.”
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thingc expects in the future the majority of farmers will run multiple robots, managed by one person.
Farmers can change tools
Cameron points out that farmers can change tools on the robotic platform. The machine itself will be updatable. All components will be manufactured locally as well as in China. The assembly will take place in thingc’s warehouse in Brunswick, Australia. “We have the supply lines ready, so it will be relatively straightforward to build a new robot”, Cameron says.
The startup is looking for farmers to participate in the first trials. “We will focus our development on the applications our early customers want on a robot. They will get a good deal and they will get very dedicated support to solve any problem they are facing. We have not signed up any farmers yet but we are having discussions with some.”
1 million Australian dollars needed
thingc hopes to have the funding needed within 6 months and also expects to have the first robots in the trials running by that time. The startup is looking for investors and is aiming for a total investment sum of 1 million Australian dollars. “We are certainly also looking at farmers that want to be a part of the development as well as use our machine”, says Cameron.
The company has not confirmed a price on the robot yet. That will largely depend on the tool that is used on the platform.