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Agriculture Technology Podcast Ep. 157: GUSS Automation

2 Dec 2021

Gary Thompson joins the Agriculture Technology Podcast to discuss GUSS (Global Unmanned Spray System).

Learn more about the organization's beginnings in the fields of California, and how a commitment to better feed a growing world is helping solve the challenges today's growers face.

Learn more about GUSS by visiting them online


You can find past podcast episodes by visiting our Podcast website

Have precision ag questions? We have the answers. Find a specific channel dedicated to answering your precision technology questions: Precision Ag Answers 


View the entire transcript here:

Tony Kramer: Hi, I'm Tony Kramer with RDO Equipment Company.

Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 157. Today, we are going to be talking about GUSS Automation.

I am very excited to welcome Gary Thompson, who is the COO of GUSS Automation. Thanks for joining us on the show today, Gary. To get started, I'd really like to hear more about you and your background, and how you got involved in the industry.

Gary Thompson: Yes. Thanks a lot, Anthony. Thanks for having me on the show. Look forward to chatting with you. Essentially, my background is always been in large-scale agriculture. I grew up in Arizona on a family dairy farm. Fairly large size, and just always out there working with the cattle and eventually, went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo for college, and after that returned and managed the dairy for 10 years. The operation grew very large in size and had a row crop farming aspect of it as well. We're growing feed for the cattle.

Really, my background just made me intricately aware of all the challenges on real-world farms and large-scale farms, and especially all the labor challenges that come along with that. In 2017, I ended up making the move to California and joined the GUSS team when it was in its infancy. The machine was still under development very much and joined this steam. Had a very big opportunity there for a type of technology that could really help a lot of farmers. Did that, and here I am today, so very excited.

Tony: You're saying that your real-life experience back home on the dairy and the row crop, you were very aware of what goes on in the ag industry when it comes to labor shortages, or just the amount of work that goes into farming. It's a perfect fit for what you guys have going on at GUSS Automation to where you came from to where you're at today. Let's dive into the show, Gary. To start out, let's just hear a little bit more about who or what is GUSS Automation.

Gary: Sure. Yes. I really enjoy telling the story about our background. It's not what most people think of when they hear about an autonomous company out of California. Their minds always just race right to, "Okay, this is Silicon Valley. This is VC funded group of people that came up with an idea and they're going to try to solve the problems for farmers." It's really exactly opposite of that.

Our background, the company's founder and CEO is Dave Crinklaw. He has had a farm service business here in California Central Valley, located in Kingsburg, just south of Fresno. He's had that business since 1981. Been in it a long time. The majority of that business is a commercial application of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides onto trees and vines. I'm very focused on specialty crops. Permanent crops, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, wine grapes those types of crops.

He started that business almost for about 40 years ago now, and over the years just grew it very large. Basically started it, two tractors, himself and his father. They were each out there spraying 20, 40 acres at a time. Really grew the business. Pretty quick after that, his father retired out of it, and they've got to the point where he was spraying all over the state of California, grew a very large fleet of equipment. 120 [unintelligible 00:05:18] sprayers, very large crew of people. His 100% number one challenge was labor, just finding people that wanted to do that type of work.

A lot of it's done at night. Once the temperatures get over about 90, 95 degrees it goes to nights, so that the materials don't lose their effectiveness when they're being applied to the trees and binds. Finding people to do this work, a lot of times it's two to three hours away from home for them. They spray all night long, and it's all two miles an hour very slow tedious work, then they would have to sleep in a motel during the day and then they go spray again at night, often away from home for a week or two on end.

These challenges really drove Dave to think about innovating and solving his challenge there. He had thought about having an autonomous sprayer for quite some time. In 2014, he finally decided to start building it, and went out in the shop and drew on the shop floor what he thought the world's first autonomous orchard sprayer ought to look like, and got his team to start fabricating it and really had no clue how to automate the machine at that time, but knew he had to start with a platform, so built the platform and then set off onto a three-year path to try to get it to drive itself.

Took till about 2017 to get it to that point where we could send it down a tree row, have it make its own turn, come back down the tree row. Very challenging when you're dealing with an orchard, because the tree canopy blocks GPS signal to the machine, so there was a lot of other sensors used. There was software developed to help it to drive down the orchard. To center down those tree rows with the lack of GPS signal.

Then when we got to that point, we started calling our customers in our farm service business and asked them if they'd be okay with us bringing these machines out on their next spray. Overwhelmingly, they said yes bring them out. We need this kind of stuff in agriculture. That's what we did, and we started commercially spraying with the first handful of units that we had built.

That was a big turning point for us because it really allowed us to start fine-tuning the machine, continuing our R&D, just improving the whole process. It's one thing to have a machine drive itself down a field, it's a whole another thing to have it perform the job, and in our case the application in the trees to a very high level and very efficiently. That's what we did. We started really hitting it hard commercial spraying, and took it to the first world Ag expo in 2018, and debuted it to the world.

At that show, we had an overwhelming response from growers that said, "Wow, this is great. How much, I want to buy one." At the time, we weren't selling them. This was just something we developed for our own use, but it really got us thinking about getting into outside sales and starting manufacturing and all that. We set that plan in motion, built a new facility in Kingsburg to manufacturer the GUSS sprayers out of, and moved into it about summer of 2019.

Started manufacturing. Been producing one machine a week ever since. Currently, we have about 113 units out in the field spread between California, Arizona, Florida, and Australia. Soon to be, expanding up into Washington and Oregon which we're super excited about.

Tony: That is a really cool story to hear, Gary. It's again taking a real-world situation. Something that you guys were dealing with in the application world of not being able to have or having labor shortages, I should say, and just all that goes into it. It is a real situation in all of agriculture whether it's specialty crops that you guys are dealing with. They're on the [unintelligible 00:09:56] or even a standard commodity crops or dairies or hog facilities, their labor shortages are a real thing so it is so awesome to hear how that all began and where it's come to today.

I want to dive in a little bit more on these sprayers themselves, let's just start out. You obviously said one of the major benefits, of course, is labor, dealing with labor shortages, this is completely autonomous once you set that sprayer in motion. Let's talk a little bit more about the overall benefits of running an automated sprayer like this.

Gary: I'd love to. Essentially, what you'll have when you go to spray a farm you're going to have one operator that monitors the sprayers from a pickup truck. He or she'll sit in that truck, he'll have a laptop computer in there with the GUSS user interface on it. From that pickup, he can monitor between four and eight machines at a time so just super labor efficient.

We do want to have that guy field side. Essentially, the reasoning for that is that he can control the whole show. He's playing quarterback, he's telling the sprayers which rows each of them should spray. He's also monitoring everything that's happening so there's telematics from the sprayers that go send data back to his laptop and anything that's going on with that sprayer is going to be displayed there on that laptop.

If there's any problem whatsoever let's say one of the engines had a high temperature or the flow rate of the material you're applying to the trees it's supposed to be at a hundred gallons per acre and it drops down to 75 gallons per acre, it's going to report those problems to you. The sprayer on his laptop's going to flash, it's going to do an audible alert, he can click on that machine and his eyes will immediately go to a yellow or red bar indicating where the problem is so very efficient labor wise.

The other big benefit of GUSS is just the precision aspect. You really get away from a lot of the operator error in specialty crop and trees and vines, it's very crucial to speed that you drive at when you're applying the chemicals products to those trees and vines. Very slow speeds, you're allowing enough time for the airflow from the fan to really create a lot of turbulence so with the leaves, flip them around so that all sides of it can be coded with the materials you're applying.

If you need to do that spray at two miles an hour, that's where you need to stay all day long and it is a constant challenge with tractor drivers to keep them driving at that slow of a speed especially as fatigue sets in or if they're trying to get home or get to lunch or something like that. The machines though they really don't care, you set them for two miles an hour, they're going to do that all day, all night.

They spray the correct amount of material, they turn the spray on and off at the correct time when they exit a row, make their turn and then come back into the next row. Everything's just extremely precise and it's all being recorded while the machine's out there working. At the end of an application, the grower can download the spray log, and then they'll have all that information for their records.

Tony: Those are all awesome benefits or major benefits to using automated sprayers. I would also imagine there's a sense of safety that goes into it not having an operator actually on each sprayer.

Gary: Yes. That's a big point that you hit on right there. There is, obviously, the chemical aspect of what we're doing and there's so many precautions that need to be taken when you're using tractor drivers to apply these products. It's all the PPE that they have to wear, at times there's blood testing depending on what type of products you're spraying just to make sure that there isn't an exposure happening to that operator GUSS gets away from all of that. There's no person physically on the machine, it's going out there it's spraying on its own so really helping to promote employee safety.

Also, upskilling employees so instead of them on the tractor drive two miles an hour all night long, they can be in that pickup monitoring four, six, eight of these machines at a time and really just learning a new skill. It is important to know too that the user interface and this whole system was created to be extremely user friendly. The vast majority of the customers we set up we take their existing spray guys so a guy that was driving a tractor and we say let's use him and teach him the program and pretty soon after a few hours he's running multiple machines on his own.

Tony: That leads me right into the next question. You talked about one operator or one field manager, sprayer manager whatever they want to call them can operate multiple machines, the user interface is very user friendly. Let's just talk, Gary, start to finish if I were to buy a GUSS sprayer, what does it look like? How do I get that set up to where it is spraying in a field? What does that process look like?

Gary: It's a three step process. First time you're going to spray a field you need to build a map of that field. Utilizing that computer with the user interface on it you're going to open up the satellite image of that field, it's essentially just like a Google earth image. Then you're going to mark the boundaries with the mouse, you're just going to click on the corners of the field and then it's going to ask you what the row spacing is. If it's 10 feet or 20 feet whatever it is you type that in, hit enter, it builds a grid across the whole field with a driving line at that spacing so 10 feet it'll be a driving line every 10 feet across the whole field.

At that point, you just got to go out to the field, you're going to have your machines I should say as well that that mapping process is a one time thing, you do it once for the life of the orchard or vineyard. Once you save it, you've got it right up until you push the trees out one day in the future and then you go to replant. The next thing you're going to do is you're going to calibrate all the sprayers. On the laptop you're going to basically set what speed you want them to drive out? What engine RPM you're going to set the pump pressure you want to run and the flow rate of the material?

Whether it's a hundred gallons an acre, 200 gallons an acre whatever that is you just type those values in and then that sprayer knows exactly what it needs to do.

Lastly, you just assign routes to each sprayer so if you have four sprayers for example on one field you can tell the first sprayer to spray the first 30 rows of the field, the second sprayer to spray rows 31 to 60, and so on. Then you just hit enter and they all go on their routes and they spray on their own. At that point the operator he's simply there for monitoring purposes, any machine has any issue he can pause it, he can drive over to the machine, he can check filters, he can unplug nozzles, that sort of thing.

Tony: You talk about a very user-friendly user interface simple. There's a lot of technology out there that is not automation and it's not the level of application or tasks that you guys are doing. The process that you guys have to set that up to get those sprayers moving definitely seems user-friendly, straight to the point and very easy, very simple to do. Like you were saying, once you map that field the first time you don't have to map it again unless something changes physically in that field.

It sounds like a very, very nice setup, very easy to use and very user friendly. I know you guys are just getting, going with the outside sales, getting these sprayers out throughout the United United States and I would imagine even throughout the world and actually you said that you have some in Australia. Is there any sort of a success story that you'd like to share with us in the process of getting GUSS out there?

Gary: I'd love to. When we started GUSS, again, we have the largest commercial application company in California. Right off the bat, we said we need to have one guy watching eight of these things just be as efficient as all possible. Then later down the road we decide to start selling them and immediately you think this is going to be the big farmers, the huge acreage guys, the corporate farms, the investment farms.

They're going to be the ones all over this because they have the capital, they have the acreage to be able to do the same efficiency that we were doing. What we've actually done so those are really no brainer type customers, I would say. What we've actually done is filtered down to the smaller growers. A success story that I'd like to share we had early on was a guy that came to us and he has almond's, walnuts, pistachios and he said I'd love to buy one of your sprayers. At the time, we had only sold groups of 4, 8, 10 multiple machines and it sent me back a little bit.

I said, really, you're going to buy one? Because at this point everyone's had told us, at least while it doesn't make sense to buy one, because you still have to have the guy at the field side monitoring the thing, he might as well be on the tractor. Well, this guy opened our eyes, he said, yes, I'm going to have one and while GUSS is out spraying, I'm going to have my pickup truck with the laptop, computer inside and a bubble trailer hooked up to my pickup truck and I'm going to go over to the pump and I'm going to fill the bubble trailer, makes my materials into it, drive back to where GUSS is spraying and then when GUSS pulls up for its refill, I'm right there to load it.

It'll take me three to five minutes to load it and then I hit resume and spraying again. He said, "Right now I'm an owner operator on my sprayer and as soon as I spray my load out, I go as fast as I can back to the pump with the tractor, I mix it into my sprayer and then by the time I get back to the field, it's minimum 45 minutes for that process to mix and get back to spraying again." He said, "Because I'm going to be able to do it three to five minutes right there, I'm doubling my acreage every night.' That was one of those eye-opener moments for us that was like, wow, there's really a lot to this even for the smaller scale farmers.

Tony: I really liked that story because that just goes to show the world of automated agriculture is not just for large operations or large service providers, even a simple owner operator, a one man show a two man show can make sense of an automated sprayer so that is really awesome to hear. Now, Gary, if somebody wants to learn more about the GUSS Automation sprayers, where can they go? Who can they talk to?

Gary:, that's our website. My name's Gary Thompson, as so my emails gtgus so you can reach out to me but also we are very excited to pick up RDO equipment as one of our dealers in Washington and Oregon, that's an area we're going to really be pushing into in a big way this winter and next spring. We developed a smaller version of our machine recently we call it mini GUSS and predominantly we made that machine for the market in the Pacific Northwest.

Apples grown, high density, we had a lot of interests from growers up there that said, man, Gus looks great, but it's too big for my apple orchard, can you something smaller? That's what we did, we built many guests it'll fit very nicely and that type of orchard, it also happens to be a great fit for vineyards. Lots of vineyards, obviously in California and the Pacific Northwest so I'm super excited to be launching that machine next spring.

Tony: There you go, solutions for operations of all sizes as well as different crops. I just want to thank you, Gary, for taking the time to sit down with me and talk about the GUSS Automated sprayers. It is awesome technology, very neat to hear the background and how it got started so thanks again for sharing that with us.

Gary: Yes, thank you. I've enjoyed this time.

Tony: Thanks again for tuning into another episode. If you have questions about the technology and products discussed or have ideas about future episodes, please leave them in the comments below. You can also subscribe to our videos, YouTube channel and be in the know about each episode or tune in on any streaming service.

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