Farming in 2022 is all about efficiency. Land isn’t suddenly becoming any more abundant. The only tried and true way to improve one’s profit margin is to ensure that every available inch of fertile soil contributes as much as possible to the crop growing above it.
And while every new year seemingly brings us another half-dozen prototypes poised to “revolutionize the agricultural sector,” any interested farmers without unlimited finances must first ask themselves if the juice is worth the squeeze. For those already keeping their businesses afloat at a moderately comfortable level, prioritizing net profit per acre over everything else might not be the most important outcome.
Reducing physical wear and tear can be equally or even more important than a slight increase in income in the eyes of many farmers. The nature of the industry is unlike the conventional desk job, where the long-term health worries are a slouched back and lack of physical activity. Seeing something as benign as rocks along a tractor’s path can morph into an all-day cleanup operation where most work must be done by hand. Until now, at least.
The Bellevue, WA-based startup TerraClear has recently been a topic of discussion at agricultural innovation trade shows for a device that clears these pesky rocks on its own. Featured at the Cascadia Connects Robotics, Automation, and Artificial Intelligence conference in Pittsburgh, PA, this May, TerraClear showed off its new Rock Picker. This mountable device uses artificial intelligence to parse and clear rocks along a given pathway.
Though TerraClear is constantly working on improvements to the design, base models continue to sell out since first hitting the shelves in the fall of 2021.
“Each iteration, we’re kind of tweaking the design to where we’re ready to really deploy this thing at a larger scale,” said Trevor Thompson, TerraClear president.
TerraClear’s creation is a major step in solving a relatively under-reported problem that has affected farmers for most of the industry’s modern age. Back when farming solely involved manual labor and horse-drawn plows, an errant boulder may not have been a significant problem.
That all changed when agriculture industrialized, making way for complex machinery that did the work of a dozen people in a fraction of the time. The downside was that these naturally occurring rocks now behaved in the same way as potholes do to cars, where each instance of contact could spell a hefty repair bill for someone’s new, expensive tractor.
The Rock Picker was spawned from what Brent Frei, TerraClear’s founder, perceived to be an inefficiency in the agricultural equipment market. After a week of collecting what he claimed to be thousands of rocks at his father’s farm, Frei was surprised to discover that rock-picking technology hadn’t advanced from the rudimentary designs first proposed several decades ago. “I kept asking, ‘Why are most of the designs of rock pickers really just iterations from the 1960s?’” he said.
Frei’s creation, while being upgraded constantly, is already far beyond anything seen before in terms of performance.
It can already pick up 400 rocks per hour, with an impressive weight capacity of up to 300 pounds per boulder.
The machine also places a great deal of emphasis on the condition of the underlying soil and can extract rocks with minimal damage.
Current versions, which are mounted to any tractor or similar machine, are controlled by the user with a joystick. TerraClear is working on software that maps the entire area in advance to make the process less user-intensive and more autonomous.
In the meantime, farmers are jumping to get their hands on a stripped-down model while they can. “We’re saying, ‘It’s not a final version, and [farmers] are saying, ‘I don’t care,’” says Frei. “They’re hearing all the caveats, and they’re still asking for it.”