phil@robophil.com

Philip English

Robotics Enthusiast, Director, Investor, Trainer, Author and Vlogger

Muddy Machines Interview with Florian Richter

Hi guys Philip English this from robophil.com. Welcome to the Robot Optimized Podcast where we talk about everything robotics related. For our next episode, we have Florian Richter who will talk about us "Farming Robots".

Philip English

Welcome to the Robot Philosophy Podcast, where we keep you up to date on the latest news, reviews and anything new in the robot world. Right. Hi, guys. It’s Philip English. RoboPhil from Robot Philosophy podcast. We’re here today with Florian from Muddy Machines just to learn a little bit more about Muddy Machines and what their team is up to. I probably kick off straight away. Could you give us just a general intro flooring, obviously, what Muddy Machines is about?

 

Florian Richter

Yeah, of course, Phil, thanks for having me on. Pleasure to be here. I’ve seen lots of your videos so far. Very interesting founders on there. Yeah. So, Muddy Machines is an act tech? Robotics company. We build robots that are about like 180 x 180 big, so quite sizable machines. Here’s a cat picture of what Sprout looks like. And these robots. Why do we do what we do? There is a massive labor shortage in farming. I mean, all robotics companies, I guess, tackle labor shortages in one way or another, but in farming, we’re really coming to a place where growers are stopping the production of certain crops because they are too labor intensive. You have something like 50, 60% of the production cost being labor. If you can’t get your seasonal labor force in because of Brexit, because of COVID and general, the price that you can pay per hour isn’t exactly going up. With supermarket price pressures exerted on growers, you just end up with what grows from telling us a 30% to 50% shortage of labor force. Right. And then you’re sitting on your crop nets that you’re rotting away in the field. It’s actually a great weather this year for some growers.

 

Florian Richter

They get very high yields. Water is a bit of an issue, too, now as it continues. But if you can’t harvest your crop, you’re making an outright loss instantly. And so, we think that this is something that hasn’t sufficiently addressed yet with robotics technology. Yes, there are plenty of machinery out there that do combine harvesting, where the crop has a very uniform growing pattern and you can pull the trigger on a certain day and say, now get me all my bali, get me all my wheat. You have these big combined harvesters going through the field, but with vegetables, it’s fruit berries. You need to really go in and say, okay, so is this one ripe? Now pick it, put it in my basket, and then leave the rest to ripen for another couple of days. And that’s something that hasn’t been done by any of these traditional OEMs and agriculture so far. And that’s where Muddy Machines comes in with Sprout.

 

Philip English

Right. Fantastic. That’s a great intro, Florence. Thanks for that. What’s your background? I understand that the family comes from a farming sort of background, and then at the same time, you’ve got a co-founder, Chris. I was interested in his sort of background as well.

 

Florian Richter

Yeah. So, we have two people, Chris and me. Chris is the CTO. He’s the one with the robotics background. He has spent quite a long time at Dyson. He spent some time at delivery building automated kitchens. He’s done some work in field search and rescue robots. So, he really straddles. I call him like a full stack robotics engineer, right? He can do everything. He has built our first prototype, Sprout MK One, by himself, 100% last year. And now we finally have a big enough team to bring in specialists, mechanics, engineer, specialist, computer vision, et cetera, to really leverage his skills wider. And yeah, I take care of everything on the business side. I’m an economics business student by training. I’ve been in many different startups over the last 10-15 years, really across the spectrum of ecommerce software as a service fintech. And yeah, you mentioned my family farming background, and we credit to my in-law family. They are the ones that got into farming probably about a decade ago in Portugal. Actually, Portugal wasn’t doing so well for a while, as you remember, and there was a lot of land or derelict farms available where the business has been completely mismanaged, was in disarray.

 

Florian Richter

And they have taken on over 1500 hectares in the Alentejo region, mostly cattle, so open field grazing, so very sustainable if you do it right, and olive orchard. And that really got me thinking into what is the kind of business stuff that I know, and then got his insight into farming and then realized the massive potential for building something that is long term sustainable, but at the same time has very long planning horizons. The first thing we have to do is ensure the water supply or the land is healthy enough again to retain water. You have a big drought issue in Portugal, and then you make some investments that sometimes take 10 to 15 years to pay back. And now we’re slowly in a place where the thing is commercially viable again and we can reinvest in it. And then when I had a point in my life, okay, what’s my next start up? I said, okay, I think I really want to be in the agricultural world and adding some value there with the skills that I have. But building an app or something, that would be something that I could probably do quickly by myself.

 

Florian Richter

I think this has been attempted already to mix success. So, it was pretty clear to me that if you want to bring technology into agriculture, if you want to enable farmers, at that time, I didn’t even know about the labor issues in vegetable growing with that. Okay, so if you want to do something in the space, you need to be a really deep tech person that does something transformational. And then when I spoke to Chris and understood what the state of the art of robotics is, then we had a shared conviction of, okay, so we want to do something in agriculture. We want to do something that really moves the needle for people working in that industry. What could that be? And then with his background of robotics, when you speak to growers, what’s your problem? And you start hearing labor shortages, labor shortages, then you’re like, okay, so this is obviously something that we could take a look at. And then in the middle of corporate, we did a field visit with a very large asparagus grower here in the UK. We got I think we got a special permit to drive out in May 2020 with a GoPro camera and a speedy camera and just started to take some pictures of crop in the field to see can we actually see this?

 

Florian Richter

Can we, with a reasonable effort record, good enough image data, and that was successful. I mean, that’s far from perfect. Okay, cool. So, this works. Now can we mock up something that grabs? Can we build some kind of end effective solution and then we iterate it through in a year later, we had something that was a very decent proof of concept, looks a lot different from what the picture I’ve just shown you was very bolted together with aluminum intrusions and all that. But it was enough to see, yes, this could potentially work. Now you just need to make it faster, more robust, and that’s when it gets really hard, as any person knows who’s trying to build a robot with commercial specifications. But although in last year we had something that proved the concept, we did a lot of work on the machine that we put into the field this year, but that still, again, needs that. The last 5% are the hardest to get it to the right pick speed, the right operation and time, the robustness against the elements and all that. That’s kind of our story, our backgrounds, where we’ve come from.

 

Florian Richter

We met an entrepreneur first, which is a great program to get people like me to meet people like Chris.

 

Philip English

Right. And is that based in London?

 

Florian Richter

Well, the original program is based in London. I think they have cohorts in Berlin and a couple of other major cities as well now. And it’s great. I can highly recommend it if you are, from my point of view, if you have a business background, you’re kind of always ready to go to start a business. But there are many technical people that get very tempted by high paying jobs in bigger corporates. And I know engineers have also typically a higher required them for job security, continuity, et cetera. And you get addicted to that, right? So, entrepreneur first, they’re trying to rescue people from the corporate ladder and get them into a safety.

 

 

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