Agriculture Innovation: GUSS, World’s First and Only Autonomous Orchard Sprayer

Interview with Gary Thompson, COO of GUSS Automation

guss lidar

The heritage of GUSS, which stands for Global Unmanned Spray System, goes back to 1982 when its inventor Dave Crinklaw and his father Bob started an agriculture spray business in the Central Valley of California. Under Dave’s leadership, his company, called CFS LP, has grown from two tractors servicing about 40 acres a day to a fleet that now sprays up to 5,000 acres a day during peak season.

Around 2007, Dave had the vision to build a driverless sprayer but back then the technology was not ready to support an autonomous vehicle. As the vehicle navigation technology improved, Dave began development of a prototype driverless orchard sprayer in 2015. Today, that vehicle, called GUSS, is ready to spray field after field in the safe, precise and efficient way Dave first envisioned.

To learn more about GUSS Automation and how they are delivering on their vision for driverless sprayers, we asked Gary Thompson to discuss the company’s innovative autonomous orchard sprayers and how Velodyne technology helps them address the needs of growers.

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VL: What challenges do growers face that led GUSS Automation to develop a driverless sprayer?

Gary Thompson: As a matter of fact, GUSS was originally developed to deal with our own company’s challenges. Our commercial spray business is the largest in the state and for the past 15 years we’ve had a very difficult time finding enough employees to drive our tractors. Upon debuting GUSS to the world, we received a multitude of inquiries from growers wanting to purchase our sprayers because they were facing the same problems we were. The labor shortage that farmers face directly affects their ability to grow crops and bring them to market profitably. Additionally, an increase in regulations and labor costs have further added to the problem. 

VL: How can a driverless sprayer help growers achieve a higher level of efficiency and precision?

Thompson: Spraying orchards with GUSS is by far the most efficient method of spraying. The obvious efficiency advantage comes in labor. A single operator can monitor up to 10 GUSS sprayers at a time. GUSS is also more efficient in that it experiences less stopped and down time than traditional equipment. Precision is also maximized with GUSS because it is computer controlled. Exact parameters are set into GUSS’s software that control vehicle speed, fan speed, spray pump pressure, and material flow rate. Furthermore, GUSS automatically turns its spray on and off during turns at the exact right times.    

VL: Why did your company equip your sprayers with lidar to help guide the vehicles through orchards?

Thompson: We use lidar for two main functions: guidance and obstacle detection. Building an autonomous machine for orchards was very challenging due to the loss of GPS signal underneath the tree canopy. Lidar is one of the sensors used to assist with driving in the absence of GPS signal. It is continually looking at the tree trunks ahead of the machine and our software keeps it centered in the row. The lidar is also constantly searching for obstacles in front of the sprayer. If a person, pump, power pole, or downed tree is in front of the machine, the lidar will detect it and stop the sprayer.    

VL: Why did GUSS Automation select Velodyne lidar technology and what value do Velodyne sensors add to your driverless sprayers?

Thompson: The environment GUSS sprayers operate in is very harsh. Heat, dust, debris, moisture, and spray materials are an everyday reality for our machines. Each component we add to GUSS needs to be able to perform flawlessly in this environment. Being such an important safety feature for our machine, lidar reliability is essential. Velodyne lidars are robust and have proven to be up to this task.    

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VL: Safety was a top priority while designing the GUSS driverless sprayer. Can you discuss how the vehicle is safer for employees, the environment, and our food?

Thompson: Employee safety is maximized by removing tractor drivers from the environment where they could accidentally be exposed to the materials being applied. Employee injuries sustained on or around tractors are also eliminated. GUSS is also safer for our environment due to the high level of precision it sprays with. The chance of material drift and over/under application of materials are all greatly reduced by GUSS sprayers. This high level of precision also ensures safer foods by knowing the crops received the prescribed levels of materials. GUSS even supplies a data file to the grower that depicts all the pertinent details of the application.   

VL: Can you share with our readers what’s next for GUSS?

Thompson: We are very excited to have just recently moved into our brand-new manufacturing facility in Kingsburg, Calif. We will kick off GUSS sales to customers from this location. This state-of-the-art building will help us to maximize production and quality of our machines. It will also help us to continue to innovate. We believe our autonomous sprayer is just the beginning. There is no reason we cannot adapt our technology to other machines which perform different tasks in orchards and vineyards. At GUSS Automation, we believe the sky is the limit!

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