According to Anne Dingstad, the brand-new CEO of Saga Robotics, the time for ag robots is now. “The technology delivers, the numbers stack up.”
In 2021, Saga Robotics launched Thorvald, an autonomous robotic platform which focuses on reducing powdery mildew through UV-C treatment. In August of this year, Anne Dingstad, until then the CFO of Saga Robotics, was selected as the company’s new Chief Executive Officer.
Under the leadership of Anne Dingstad, Saga Robotics aims to extend its markets, scale and build a robust operation to create shareholder and societal value. We talked to Anne Dingstad about the present and future of Saga Robotics, ag robots and the Thorvald platform.
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Currently, Saga, with the Thorvald Platform, is focusing on strawberries and grapevines. Why specifically those crops?
“Thorvald is an autonomous platform which can perform many jobs. We began with a series of preventive services such as controlling powdery mildew with UV light, and strawberries and grapes are particularly prone to powdery mildew; they are also a shape and size which is relatively easy to build a robot to work around and alongside.
We’re developing data-driven precision services for yield prediction, early and accurate detection of diseases and tools like precision sprayers and harvesters
Over the last few years it has become apparent that the robot which emits UV-C light to the strawberry plant and vine can also be used to disperse beneficials, and cut runners. These are now in use commercially too and we’re developing data-driven precision services for yield prediction, early and accurate detection of diseases and tools like precision sprayers and harvesters.”
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What tasks can the Thorvald platform perform?
“Currently the main task being performed is UV-C light treatment to prevent powdery mildew, however, as mentioned above, we are commercialising the next set of services. So UV-C is really just a starting point.
Caring for a strawberry from initial planting to harvesting requires a number of repetitive tasks which are wonderfully suited to a robot. These include treating for pests and dispersing beneficials, but we can also perform a variety of daily/regular maintenance tasks like cutting and spraying, as well as gathering and sharing data on plant health (or ill health) and helping at harvest time with added knowledge on when and where to pick and ferrying fruit from picker to pack-house.”
How many Thorvald robots are currently being used worldwide?
“Today there are more than 50 Thorvald robots in operation, in five different countries. Within a few years in the UK alone there will be hundreds as we help more and more growers become more and more efficient, letting robots do both helpful smart work and time-consuming simple tasks.”
What other crops will you focus on with the Thorvald platform?
“For now we are focused particularly on strawberries but we see opportunities with a number of other fruits, veg and ornamentals which share similar biological vulnerabilities and issues. There are a lot of growers of fresh produce who would welcome increased efficiency, using technology to prevent or fix plant health issues and helping do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to harvest.”
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Do you offer Thorvald as a Robot-as-a-service?
“Today, Thorvald offers his services through a farming-as-a service model, meaning that limited capital investment is required from growers, giving them low risk and high flexibility.”
What distinguishes Saga Robotics and the Thorvald platform from other manufacturers?
“Thorvald has been in commercial service for several years already. We are a world-leader in what we do and can be a scalable technology partner for a range of soft fruit, horticulture and viticulture growers, enabling them to maximize yield sustainably.
We do this by seeing the world through a grower’s eyes and helping him/her add even more efficiencies across their business. We provide a series of services across the fresh produce farm, including UV-C treatment, dispersing beneficials, spraying(/dispersion) and runner cutting tools and are developing data-driven precision services for yield prediction, early detection of diseases and tools like precision sprayers and harvesters.”
What in your view is needed to speed up the adoption of robotics in agriculture?
“It feels like this is a service whose time has come: the technology delivers, the numbers stack up and we have lots of talented people approaching us, looking to get involved with what we’re doing and recognising the immediate opportunity and near-future potential.
The pace of adoption is already accelerating as more growers ‘get it’ and want to feel the benefits in their businesses.
The pace of adoption is already accelerating as more growers ‘get it’ and want to feel the benefits in their businesses. We also, of course, have technology which continually evolves, strengthening the proposition all round.
In the next five years an ever-broadening group of soft-fruit growers will have an ever-growing list of uses for robot support, not least because labour issues seem unlikely to be quickly and easily resolved.
So I expect that farmers who want help with integrated pest management, cutting, spraying, transportation and harvesting, with data-driven precision will be able to have “robotised their farm” and have a fleet of Thorvalds assisting them to maximise their yield while cutting waste, use of chemicals, and carbon emissions.”
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Lack of labour hurts businesses. Should governments help stimulate adoption of robotics?
“Soft fruit farms will undoubtedly need labour for many years to come, particularly when it comes to picking, but I think a lot of people increasingly understand that robots can provide a lot of support around the growers and the pickers.
Governments can help by both helping ensure skilled workers continue to be available at scale for picking fruit, while also encouraging and helping fund the up-take of technology across the sector.”