Robotics startup brings Israeli twist to agricultural drones
Blue White Robotics completed its first pollination of dates using drones and is bringing Israel’s military specialty in UAVs to the agricultural sector.
Blue White Robotics used its technology to pollinate date palm in the Arava region. Photo: Blue White Robotics
Israel is known for its robust military technology sector, and particularly the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are specifically engineered for reconnaissance, border control, battlefield surveillance, transporting supplies, and other types of missions. Blue White Robotics, a startup based out of Tel Aviv and founded in 2017, decided to take the local superiority in the UAV market and give it an Israeli, albeit civilian twist: instead of being used for military purposes, drones could be used to help pollinate dates in the Arava desert. During its first test in March 2020, four pollination flights were made, one per week, in which drones transported pollen to date palm trees’ flower stigmata, with results showing that 90% of the trees were successfully fertilized. It has also developed an autonomous shuttle at Bar-llan University, that helps transport students and professors across campus.
When the pandemic hit, the Israeli startup realized that due to Covid-19 restrictions agricultural harvesting was suffering and that the time had come to market to the U.S. and other countries, where growers or laborers dwindled due to the spread of the pandemic. Entire fields and agricultural crops could be fertilized by drones alone. The company recently raised $10 million to expand its local R&D sector through Jesselson Investment, Peregrine VC, Entrée Capital, and an investment group led by Ran Sarig.
Blue White Robotics promotes robots-as-a-service and has been active in the Bay Area and other farming parts of Northern California, such as Fresno and Bakersfield, where it analyzed the growing need for its product in the U.S. market. Giving it an Israeli twist on things, the company has plans to bring it to the broader Middle East region. In the wake of the recent peace agreements signed between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, Blue White Robotics hopes to use its technology to break down cultural barriers and bring economic peace and trade throughout the region.
Blue White Robotics co-founder and CEO Ben Alfi spoke to CTech about his company’s technology and how it is breaking the mold of traditional agricultural and farming methods, fit for the 21st century.
In your own words, what does your technology do?
“Our vision is to revolutionize all of the aspects of work today and make it entirely autonomous. We are focusing on several segments, and mainly on the agricultural industry and urban mobility. These are two areas that with our capabilities, we can achieve labor independence, improve the efficiency of yields, and make sure all operations rely on autonomous abilities, which are both easy and done in a safe manner.”
How does your name help you stand out against those of your competitors?
“Our company is called Blue White Robotics, which is derived from the colors of the Israeli flag. We have three core values: to encourage fellowship, love of the land, and innovation,” he said.
“Israel should be an exporter of autonomous capabilities all over the world,” he added, which is what the company hopes to do.
The company has been successful in the U.S. in upstate New York and Northern California and has cooperation agreements with the urban mobility sector in Singapore.
How did you come up with this innovative idea? What problem were you trying to solve?
Alfi elaborated how he believes that autonomous vehicles are here to stay, and noted the company founders’ military background, where many are former Israeli Air Force pilots. “Israel is an empire of autonomous vehicles for military purposes,” he noted.
“Israel has been developing huge capabilities of what autonomous vehicles can do, and we wanted to take that and implement it into the civilian world.”
The company’s flagship product is a software platform that enables one person to operate multiple air and ground autonomous vehicles and control them efficiently and safely; while it also provides an operation center, and is able to address grower’s concerns and ensure the efficient operation of all vehicles. Lastly, it enables a direct connection with customers by providing an end-to-end service including transparency, regulation adherence, and logistic management. “It’s like we’re putting boots on the ground,” he quipped, referring to the military phrase.
“For example, in California, during the pandemic, we saw how people and growers were stuck without workers, and the price of laborers is rising as well,” he said. “The shortage drove the agricultural yield and efficiency down as well.”
“We think that we can bring a 21st-century solution to agriculture. Once, we moved from horses to tractors, but now we will see a move from tractors to drones or multi-vehicle operators.”
Do you think the future will see more pollination by drones, or more use of UAVs in general?
“I think we’ll see a lot more capabilities of autonomous vehicles, whether those are drones or ground vehicles, and in the agriculture business, it will increase the yield.” He recalled the Israeli test with pollinating date palms and noted the company has also done so with apple trees.
The company is currently in talks with growers in California, to use its drones to pollinate almond orchards. California is one of the world’s largest almond exporters, with sweet almonds contributing to some 80% of the global production.
How does your product appeal to the commercial market or stand out from its competitors?
“We’re seeing a flip toward relying on autonomous capabilities in the civilian field, and due to the size of our growing world population, pollinating plants by drone can make the price of food cheaper,” he said.
Is drone technology a growing field for investments? If so, why?
“Autonomous vehicles and not just drones, whether air or ground, are an extremely fast-growing industry,” he said. “During Covid-19, we had enhanced and accelerated the development of our autonomous vehicles by at least two or three years,” he added, saying that the company rode on the Covid-wave that several high tech companies took advantage of to better appeal to the market and get out their product faster to fit the changing times.
“Overall, 2020 was a good opportunity to showcase our extended capabilities and use our technology in several areas. Entrée Capital, which invested in us, has also invested in several companies that have become unicorns.”
As for your company’s message, you mentioned how unity could be an important factor in promoting your product.
“Yes, that’s right. We want to create autonomy today, and not just for the future,” he said, adding that Blue White Robotics hopes to promote its values of unity and Zionism to further boost the local and global ecosystem.
“We want to create unity among ourselves in Israel, and extend that to other countries as well,” he said. “We hope to use our technology to bring peace to the Middle East.”