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Robots for a task almost no-one wants to do

Muddy Machines has a herd of 'Sprouts' to handle harvest time

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Today’s startup is a notable player in the emerging field (pun intended) of agtech robots for harvesting crops.

Scroll down to read all about Muddy Machines.

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Muddy Machines’ robots can pick crops to tackle a severe labour shortage

Muddy Machines’ robot, Sprout

In summary:

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Agricultural robotics is a busy space, driven in no small part by labour shortages in countries including the US and UK.

One company to keep an eye on in this sector is Muddy Machines, a four-year-old startup pitching itself as a “fully electric robotic platform” of lightweight robots that can autonomously pick crops.

The startup’s first product is a robot called Sprout, which has been first set up to harvest green asparagus.

“A grower in the UK needs anywhere from 400 to 850 seasonal workers to bring that crop in for two-and-a-half to three months every year, and they just can't find those people,” says Muddy Machines co-founder Chris Chavasse.

“So we use robotics, machine learning, and computer vision to identify the crop, identify where it is, measure how long it is, and then if it's long enough, we can then cut it off selectively without damaging any of the other crop around it.”

Rather than only stick to asparagus, the idea is that in the future, Sprout will be able to be fitted with different tools for harvesting other crops such as broccoli or courgettes, or for removing weeds.

Chavasse says Sprout can drive itself from a shed to a field and automatically harvest crops, but he’s careful not to call it fully autonomous. Supervision is important, he says.

This is for safety (making sure people don’t get into the field and in the way of the robot if they shouldn’t be there), and for ongoing support and removing obstructions from the robot’s way.

“The trays will store seven kilograms of crop. The machine currently has two of those, so they need to be swapped out. Someone has to take those trays off, and put empty ones in.

“The blades that we use to cut dull over time, they need to be replaced. It's a very quick job, but it still needs to happen. And you always get someone parking where they shouldn't, or leaving objects where they shouldn't, or branches or trees falling down.”

Still, Chavasse says one person should be able to look after as many as 10 of the robots working simultaneously in a field. That’s a sharp reduction in the workforce requirement from the current situation.

“Today you'd have a tractor driver, a team lead, and then 15 harvest workers. Instead of all of those people, you'd have just the team lead or the tractor driver now looking after five to 10 of our robots in the field.”

Muddy Machines co-founder, Chris Chavasse

The story so far

Chavasse comes from an engineering background. In the past he worked on developing household robotics at Dyson, before a stint working on kitchen automation technology at Deliveroo.

Feeling an entrepreneurial urge, he joined Entrepreneur First, where he met Florian Richter, who became his fellow co-founder in Muddy Machines..

“We bonded over the idea of doing something further down the value chain, like helping the farmers,” says Chavasse. 

“At the time, we didn't necessarily know what we wanted to do. We just thought there's a huge amount of technology in all other industries. Why don't we take some of those latest developments to help the growers that are feeding us three times a day?”

Talking to farmers, they heard the problem of labour shortages come up repeatedly. Meeting a company that grows a large amount of asparagus, they figured they could come up with a tech solution to harvesting the crop with a smaller workforce. 

A herd of Sprouts

Muddy Machines is now a team of 13. Chavasse says in recent months the tech to operate a group of the Sprout robots (the startup refers to them as a “herd” of robots) simultaneously in a field has matured, making a scalable commercial offering viable.

(Literal) field testing of this herd will take place in the coming months.

“That will give us the metrics that we need to then go out to customers in June and July to show them that progress and then get pre-orders for 2025 and 2026. 

“We've currently got letters of intent from the two largest growers in the UK, and one of the largest growers in Germany as well,” says Chavasse.

And there’s more!

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