In the heart of one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, technology entrepreneur Brent Frei came to talk about life on the farm. Specifically, Frei, the co-founder of Smartsheet, and his brother Mark Frei, took the stage at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle Tuesday to share details around their latest venture, a rock-picking robot called TerraClear.
We first heard about what Brent Frei then called “a Roomba for rock picking” back in April. The former CEO of Onyx Software, who co-founded Smartsheet in 2005, was onto something bigger, or, maybe just heavier, than software as a service.
On Tuesday, it looked as if Frei and his little company were making progress on a big problem.
“Rocks as a service” was the term thrown out by one Summit attendee for what the Frei brothers and their team have conjured up on the family farm back in Grangeville, Idaho, and in offices in Bellevue, Wash.
Brent Frei, co-founder and president of TerraClear, said the age-old problem of picking rocks from the soil is a problem that his family has faced just like generations of other farmers across the country. And the seminal moment for him came when he saw his then-80-year-old father picking rocks by hand.
“Why do we still do it by hand?” Frei wondered. And TerraClear was born.
The Frei brothers discussed how the family operation has grown from 800 acres, which they worked as younger kids along with their parents, to 5,000 acres today.
“Our crew really hasn’t gotten that much larger,” said Mark Frei, who co-manages Isidore Farms. “We’ve just gotten more efficient.”
Advances in mechanization, seeding, and fertilizing practices have helped. But no one has yet to devise a piece of equipment to remove the back-breaking process of rock picking — a necessary part of farming that helps to protect very expensive equipment such as combines from being damaged.
As they showed a photo of three huge combines working their farmland, Mark Frei told the audience that under the ocean of wheat, “We have an age-old problem. These have been with us since the beginning of time. … Rocks. Thousands and thousands of rocks.”
The farming industry has tried and failed to find a mechanical solution. A slide showed six different pieces of equipment and methods, totaling $300,000 in investment, including a rock rake, rock picker, special tractor bucket, rock crusher, giant rolling pin-type machine and the practice of picking by hand.
When Brent Frei returned to the farm to work last year, he made it through about three days of picking rocks before he was searching for a better solution. He thought about GPS, robotics, hydraulics, computer vision, and then he did what any normal person would do — he went home and played with Legos, making little machine mock-ups.
TerraClear has come a long way in less than two years. The team debated various prototypes internally, pitched their ideas in living rooms to skeptical farmers, and set up shop in less-than-glitzy accommodations.
The new company raised $5.5 million in a friends and family round in July.
Drone photography is used to map rocks in a field and images are fed to a neural network to learn what rocks look like. A camera on a piece of equipment mounted on the front of a tractor — or potentially an autonomous vehicle — then says “that’s a rock” and the hardware, which looks like a treaded claw, stabs and grabs rocks out of the dirt.
Dramatic video, which drew applause from the GeekWire crowd, showed the potential of a working prototype. The hope is that it may someday grab as many as 400 rocks out of a field in an hour.
“This is the fundamental, sort of Frankenstein-oriented design, it hasn’t been streamlined yet, but it’s really exciting for us,” Brent Frei said as his video showed TerraClear grabbing good-size rocks out of a bed of soil.
“And what I hope is when we’re up here talking to you next year, showing the actual tool out in the field, my dad is no longer picking rocks,” Frei added. “Instead he’s enjoying the fruits of that.”
(Watch the full video of the GeekWire Summit talk by Mark and Brent Frei above)