Florian Boyrie (left) and Geraldine Hirschy of Naio Technologies showcased the Orio Tuesday at a preview event for FIRA USA. Photo by Edward Smith.

published on April 12, 2022 - 2:20 PM
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The global ag robotics event World FIRA will bring its first U.S. event to Fresno in October, hosting tech companies and growers to showcase the newest in robotics focused on specialty crops.

The three-day event will take place Oct. 18-20 in Fresno, with each day focused on a different theme.

The first day will focus on research and development, connecting engineers, scientists, and students to discuss what companies are doing to provide the service needed to maintain the fleets of robots deploying across the world. Panels will be held on new technology, workforce development, as well as technology and market challenges.

The second day attendees will see new technologies available and discuss how it applies to their business. Panels and breakout sessions will be held on topics ranging from crop-specific robotics discussions to mechanization vs. automation as well as safety and legislation in the field.

The third day will feature in-field demonstrations of robots currently on the market. Machines will show off their ability to weed, harvest, thin, plant and breed on Fresno State fields.

The French nonprofit GOFAR — Global Organization For Agricultural Robotics — announced the event in a seminar Tuesday at Fresno State’s Center for Irrigation Technology. The speakers were; Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources; Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for Western Growers; Gwendoline Legrand, co-director for GOFAR; and Dennis Nef, dean for Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology with Fresno State and Ashley Swearengin of the Central Valley Community Foundation.

Ag robotics companies Naio Technologies, Verdant Robotics and Blue White Robotics also held demonstrations of their robots.

Since 2016, World FIRA has held its flagship event in Toulouse, France. But when organizers discussed holding a conference in North America, holding it in the Central Valley was clear, said Gwendoline Legrand, co-director for GOFAR — the Global Organization For Agricultural Robotics — who organizes World FIRA.

They reached out to contacts with Western Growers, Fresno State, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and UC Merced, all of whom are co-sponsoring the event.

“Ag robotics are here right now, and really starting to address these challenges by saving water, reducing chemicals and solving labor problems,” said Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer for University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The goal for FIRA USA is to connect growers with developers, engineers and suppliers together to solve the various challenges with robotics in the specialty crop market.

Labor represents a bigger challenge than even water or food safety, said Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for Western Growers.

Availability of labor and cost of labor are the two things hitting every farming operation in the head every day,” Duflock said.

“And the only thing harder than farming in California some days is being a farming startup, an ag tech startup building robots for them,” Duflock said.

The specialty crops grown in the Central Valley and across the world are so diverse that adapting them to each crop and each grower requires bringing people together.

Western Growers will also unveil their Global Harvest Automation Initiative at the event. One of the goals there is automate 50% of specialty crops over the next 10 years.

The issues growers face here are not just local, but global, said Maialen Cazanave, co-director for GOFAR. Growers discussed similar problems with labor and productivity during the World FIRA 2020 conference.

“This is common everywhere, and I was very surprised when I talked with Indian growers, because they say it’s the same in the cotton fields and tea fields in India. I was like ‘really?’” said Cazanave. “The difference with the market is the different type of production, the different size of the field and how it is operated.”

“The main issues are global,” Cazanave said.

Read the full story of the challenges facing the development of robotics and the strategies being taken to overcome them in the April 15 edition of The Business Journal.

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