From left, Chase Schapansky and Dave Crinklaw stand in front of GUSS, the Global Unmanned Spray System they developed and manufactured in Kingsburg. Photo by David Castellon.
Chase Schapansky said he felt almost like a proud parent the first time the Global Unmanned Spray System rolled into an orchard.
That was in 2014, when he was a fresh graduate from Fresno State with a mechanical engineering degree. The year prior, his boss at Crinklaw Farm Service, L.P., near Kingsburg, came to him with an idea.
The company sprays crops with pesticides and other chemicals, and usually builds its own sprayers, towed behind tractors through fruit and nut groves.
David Crinklaw, the CEO, had an idea that had floated in his mind for years about a sprayer that not only had an engine to propel itself, but also could be computer controlled to do the job without a driver, and he figured the fledgling engineer could help him make his idea real.
A few months later, Schapansky — now lead engineer for Crinklaw —watched his 23-foot-long, 11,000-pound, stainless steel-covered baby, “GUSS,” take its first “steps,” rolling on massive tractor tires between rows of trees in a local grove for its test run.
All grown up
Now GUSS has grown up and is taking a bigger step with Crinklaw’s business, which has built a total of 10 GUSSes so far for its spraying operation, spinning off a new division, GUSS Automation, L.P., to build, sell and repair GUSSes in a newly-built Kingsburg-area factory where assembly began in June.
The first four autonomous sprayers from the new factory are in various stages of assembly for a Lemoore-area ag spraying business, with eight more on order — four earmarked for another Central California customer and the others going to a Florida citrus operation once they’re assembled, Crinklaw said.
He added that he’s in discussions to make more GUSSes for a potential buyer in Australia.
Schapansky said that like here, Australian farmers are having trouble hiring laborers, “the high cost of labor, hard to find labor. I’m sure other countries world wide have similar issues,” but among potential foreign buyers for GUSS, cracking the Australian market could be particularly lucrative for the new business.
Both Schapansky and Crinklaw were interviewed during an open house last week for the more than 19,000-square-foot GUSS plant at 254 Simpson St., north of Kingsburg, attended by about 200 people. About 16,500 square feet is manufacturing space, with the rest office space.
Because of the shape of the lot, architect Michelle Huerta said she had to design the office portion slightly triangular, and to give it a more creative flair, she gave the roof a slope and had the exterior walls clad with metal plate, which makes it look like the “head” of a GUSS and the long, rectangular, adjoining manufacturing area looks like the vehicle’s body.
“It’s facing the street, and everybody sees that when they come,” said Huerta, who works for M Architecture and Design in Kingsburg.
A small grove of trees has been planted in a vacant lot next door, where a GUSS can be demonstrated for potential customers.
A lot to take in
For Schapansky, even now it’s a lot to take in. When he started designing the first GUSS, he figured it was just for the spray business, not what essentially is the first autonomous tractor to hit the ag market.
He was quick not to take credit as GUSS’ inventor, noting that Crinklaw and his staff offered their years of experience in building and using ag sprayers to develop the plans that he made. And Crinklaw noted Schapansky’s engineering skills and his experience growing up on a farm in developing their machine from his idea.
“He grew up on a farm in this area, no different than I did, so he understands what it takes to operate in a field and the actual environments we’re in,” Crinklaw said. “We already knew how to build a good sprayer. We just took that design, enhanced it in many ways.”
The most notable enhancements were to add a drive system and to develop software that allows several GUSSes in a grove to be controlled at once from a laptop.
“It worked out better than I imagined. I never thought we’d be in a manufacturing business. I mean, originally it was designed to be used by ourselves, but now we’re here in this great new building,” Schapansky said.
“Is this not something very, very special,” Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, asked fellow attendees of the GUSS plant’s open house. “Right here, in Fresno County, Kingsburg area, we have first-rate manufacturing with a product that will be revolutionary in agriculture and will increase precision, efficiency and safety.”
Since the 2018 World Ag Expo in Tulare — in which GUSS was named one of the top 10 new ag products — Schapansky said the company has gotten lots of calls from potential U.S. buyers, particularly from those in California and Washington State, as well as from people in other countries, particularly Australia and parts of South America.
Currently, GUSS Automation employs 14 people and can produce a couple of new vehicles per month. But the plan is to double the staff by the end of the year, and after that, produce a new GUSS weekly.
And now that mass production and sales are happening, more people will see the vehicle in action, and Schapansky said he’s confident the new manufacturing business will sell 50 or so a year.
“I’ve gotten comfortable enough now where I know they’re going to run, they’re going to do their jobs, I don’t have to be there to watch them,” he said, adding that currently GUSS is designed for specific types of groves — citrus among them — and next on his agenda is to work on developing smaller versions to work where trees are more narrowly spaced, apple and pistachios groves among them.
Beyond that, he also is looking at one day making GUSSes with electric motors, though electric vehicle batteries don’t yet have the capacity to run at high horsepower for 12 hours at a time, as can the diesel engines GUSSes use.
“I think GUSS will be electric someday.”