RT: Can you say a little more about the potential customers and the niche you are trying to fill?
JJ: Absolutely. There are 7,000 growers in the US who grow potted plants for resale. They range greatly in size. Most are below $1 million in sales but some are as much as $10 million in sales.
We have been in contact with 20 of the largest growers in the country, meeting with them, getting ideas, taking pictures and quizzing them. The reception has been great. It turns out this is a real sticky problem for the growers. It used to be the case where you could get teenagers in the summer to go out and work in the fields.
You cannot do that anymore. It’s a tough job, moving containers around morning to night. You have to do it rain or shine because plants don’t stop growing. It can be 120 degrees on the fields in the summer. The black cloth on the ground that stops weeds from growing makes it hotter.
It is difficult to keep the laborers once you have them, and as many as 80% of these workers are undocumented. So the labor uncertainty is very great. If the grower gets a call from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service, now the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the workers might run away. If the growers do not have the workers, the plants just sit there. So the growers really would like to have an automated way of doing this.
RT: Is there any competition?
JJ: There have been attempts but no one has been successful yet.
RT: How are you funded?
JJ: We were self-funded the first year, then we took a “friends and family” round, and now we are in negotiations to get funding from professional investors.
RT: How many people are working at Harvest Automation?
JJ: Right now there are four founders and some consultants.
RT: What other kinds of robots are you working on?
JJ: We considered a lot of things and did a lot of brainstorming. We came up with 15 possible applications and as we thought about it, the pot moving application rose to the top. I do not want to say too much about what those other applications are.
RT: How does the future of commercial robotics in general look to you?
JJ: It looks strong.
Our vision of the future might be different from how robotics has been approached over the past two or three decades. The thing that will drive robotics is actual robots doing real work. The challenge is not to come up with a spectacular technology, like Commander Data from Star Trek. Instead, people will find an application in an industry that is just one technical step beyond what robots can do now. We are on that trajectory.
When we invented Roomba at iRobot, there was no robot you could buy commercially. It seemed that was the low hanging fruit. It worked out well, but we had a robot that could just roll around, so it can clean the floor, or mow the lawn if it had a blade. That was kind of unsatisfying.
The next thing robots can do is a bit of manipulation. We have a one degree of freedom manipulator. People have tried before to have general purpose manipulators, with for instance six degrees of freedom, and those are complex and unreliable. It seems like that is not the place to start; the place to start is the simplest thing for the robot to do.
RT: Can you explain the idea of degrees of freedom?
JJ: The robot can drive to a pot, pick it up, drive somewhere and put it down. It has one motor, so one degree of freedom. A general-purpose robot arm might have six motors—the waist, shoulder and elbow gives you three degrees of freedom. That allows you to put the end of the arm anywhere in space. Then with three more degrees of freedom in the wrist, it lets you point anywhere in space. That’s six degrees of freedom all together. Robots that have that are expensive, so we wanted to start with something simple.
RT: Do you have any advice for young people interested in robotics?
JJ: They should follow their interest, be it software, electronics, mechanical engineering, sensors or anything like that. And try to get a wide range of different experiences. We have often found that people who make the best roboticists have had a great variety of experience outside of engineering.