Chase Schapansky stands in front of a GUSS (Global Unmanned Spray System) a first-of-its-kind, self-propelled, autonomous-driving agricultural sprayer he designed and oversaw the construction of for Crinklaw Farm Services, Inc., near Kingsburg. Photo by David Castellon.
Written by David Castellon
For about the past decade, Dave Crinklaw has had an idea to change the way groves of trees are sprayed with pesticides and other beneficial chemicals.
Instead of towing a spray machine behind a tractor, with a powerful fan blowing the chemicals out sideways onto the branches and leaves, he imagined getting rid of the tractor and having a machine with its own engine, carrying all of the equipment and chemicals, guided by a remote control of some manner.
Despite his clear vision of what he wanted and a vast knowledge of ag sprayers that came from more than two dozen years of experience working on and running them, the technology just wasn’t available to make real the idea of Crinklaw, owner of Crinklaw Farm Services, Inc., near Kingsburg.
But in recent years, the available technology finally caught up with Crinklaw’s vision, and he has started a side business manufacturing his self-propelled ag sprayer.
Technology among the trees
It’s called GUSS — Global Unmanned Spray System — and it has been in development for the past three years, said Gary Thompson, marketing director for the company, also called “GUSS” that so far has built two of the new sprayers and is working on two more.
A standard sprayer sits on a trailer with a 600-gallon tank and a fan on the back blowing air, powered by an onboard engine or a connection to the tractor engine, Thompson explained.
GUSS foregoes the tractor and looks like a 23-foot-long metal water tank with a swooped front design so branches will slide up and over it without getting caught.
What really catches the eye is that the whole thing stands on four 44-inch-tall, 18-inch-wide off-road tires — the sort used on heavy construction vehicles — to ensure GUSS doesn’t leave heavy ruts, as thinner tires would in wet fields, as well as to make sure it never gets stuck.
It all gives GUSS a somewhat menacing look, which is why some have likened it to the Batmobile.
The wheels admitted are a bit flashy, but “We wanted it to look cool. When you build the first vehicle of its kind, you want it to look aesthetically pleasing. And the design of it’s not just for looks,” noted Chase Schapansky, who hadn’t yet earned his mechanical engineering degree from Fresno State when Crinklaw asked him three years ago to design and lead the team that would build GUSS.
“Before this, I had built spray rigs for another company, and my junior year of college I started working here. I built a number of sprayers here — a few different kinds,” but he never designed one, let alone one different from any other one on the market, Schapansky said.
He concedes that Crinklaw offering him the assignment rather than hiring a more seasoned engineer seemed a bit unusual, “Coming in with not really any experience after college, without a lot of experience, that’s a weight on my shoulders. I’m just happy to take it on.”
Crinklaw didn’t make himself available for interview.
By the time Schapansky earned his degree in 2015, he was about a year into designing and building the first GUSS.
Finding eyes for GUSS
“This was definitely Dave’s vision,” he said, noting that what primarily prevented his boss from launching the project earlier was the lack of available software that would do all that was needed.
“What we do is set the sprayers up where they have to go,” and a combination of satellite photos and global positioning systems map out the course through the grove GUSS will take.
A technician in a van can monitor up to 10 GUSS sprayers, receiving readouts of their speeds, information from sensors and video feeds from each vehicle showing where it’s going. The technician can remotely stop each GUSS or take control, if a problem arises, Thompson said.
Like the autonomous-driven cars Uber and other businesses are developing, getting GUSS to successfully navigate a grove had its challenges, among them that the original two-wheel steering system didn’t allow for the vehicle turn well from one row of trees to another.
Schapansky said that was solved by installing a four-wheel steering system, allowing for sharper turns.
“Tons of challenges in testing,” he said, adding that “It’s the first vehicle of its kind, so everything’s new. There is nothing you can take from other things — older things.”
The most important discovery upon testing was that the GPS signal used to keep GUSS on its path degraded under the canopies of leaves and branches, though safety equipment built into the device — along with the fact it travelled only 2-3 mph — kept GUSS from crashing into trees.
Schapansky said an array of lasers mounted onto the machine solved that problem by keeping GUSS on its path when the GPS signal is lost. The lasers also detect objects or people in its path and can stop the vehicle before it hits anything.
A sensor in the front bumper also will stop the vehicle if it runs into a person or object, while another system will stop it if it veers outside of it virtually-mapped route.
As for why GUSS was created, Thompson said that even a decade ago his boss — like most people in the Valley’s ag industry — was having trouble finding employees to hire to drive sprayers through fields.
GUSS allows one person to run multiple sprayers, and that person doesn’t need to be a computer expert or have a college degree to learn the job, Thompson noted.
A future on the market?
For now, the plan is to build enough GUSS sprayers to replace the 35 standard sprayers CFS currently has, he said, adding that under ideal conditions a new GUSS can be built every two or three months.
And plans are to relocate the current building operation to a site four or five times larger down the road
CFS holds a patent on GUSS, and “As of now, we’re goring to keep them for our business,” Thompson said. “We do not have any definitive plans to sell them right now, but we are keeping our options open.”