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Sun., Nov. 23
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Startup to launch agriculture robots for tilling vegetable crops

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POTSDAM — Robots that will automatically till soil for vegetable crops are coming to the north country.

Entrepreneur John P. Gaus launched a technology startup in January called Agbotic Inc., which has designed automated agriculture robots that it plans to test this summer at farms. Agbotic is owned by Golden Technology Management of Potsdam, a firm founded by Mr. Gaus in 2004 that oversees technology ventures and employs graduates of the Clarkson University School of Business.

Mr. Gaus said Agbotic is close to securing nearly $500,000 in investments that will enable it to launch robotic technology this summer. The Development Authority of the North Country also has assisted the firm by applying for a $99,650 grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to buy robotic equipment.

Mr. Gaus said the firm will seek to acquire patents for its robotic technology, which has been designed and tested at a robotics lab at Clarkson’s Center for Advanced Materials Processing. Robots will function entirely on their own and could be used to till soil for any row-planted vegetable crop, he said. They will do precision tilling that does not involve using chemicals, and they also may be used to kill invasive insects.

“The prototypes we’re building are meant to do automated tillage for lettuce, greens and vegetable row crops,” Mr. Gaus said Tuesday, but he declined to provide specifics about the robot’s design. “We’re about to close on the first half million dollars of seed capital, and that will be enough to get us going on deploying some robust prototypes to test at farms.”

Agbotic plans to lease robots to farmers who are interested in growing vegetables, Mr. Gaus said. It plans to buy produce grown at farms using the technology and sell it to distribution companies that will find markets for it. To do that, the firm plans to form a local partnership with North Country Farms, off Route 37 in the town of Pamelia. Kevin L. Richardson is president of the agribusiness, which does about 90 percent of its business in New York City by selling niche products from the north country.

“Kevin is already very successful in moving value-added agriculture products into markets,” Mr. Gaus said. “He does a great job at doing that locally at chain stores and freestanding operations, and also into Manhattan markets. And we think there are certainly opportunities to work with Kevin to do both. These projects are meant to make and sell local food.”

Mr. Richardson, who serves as an adviser for Agbotic, declined to comment Tuesday about the partnership.

Agbotic’s robots should help farms reduce their labor force by automating work that previously was done by laborers, Mr. Gaus said.

“We think we can automate about half of the labor out of a traditional large-scale greenhouse business,” he said. “We took some time to look at traditional organic farming and greenhouse business models, and they’re very labor intensive with a lot of low-wage jobs. This technology will reduce those labor requirements and create higher-wage jobs, such as a robot technician or HVAC specialist.”

Mr. Gaus said he believes farms in the greater Watertown area of Jefferson County could support four Agbotic projects. In St. Lawrence County, he said towns could support at least one project each.

“The vision is to deploy an Agbotic farm project in every community,” he said. “The ideal place to locate these projects are on ailing or defunct dairy farms. We’re specifically seeking to deploy techniques that would involve 15 acres on the small side, and up to 25 on the large side of actual production. We want to put these projects on sites that have at least four times that acreage. We want that extra acreage to engage in comprehensive soil managements and restoration practices.”

Robots designed by Agbotic are similar to technology used in the Netherlands, Mr. Gaus said. He said Dutch investors who have collaborated with him in the past offered their expertise to help design robotic technology.

“We’ve been helped through relationships with people who have experience with Dutch agriculture technology and processes,” he said. “I would say most of the people who are familiar with this technology look to the Dutch as leaders in the marketplace. Our idea is to look to improve on those models to offer lower-cost projects and the automation of labor.”

If successful, Mr. Gaus said, he believes the robotic technology could bring “hundreds of jobs” to the region over the next five years. He said the success of the startup company will hinge on how well the robots perform.

“We think this could be a potentially very big business with a lot of economic development in the north country and far beyond,” he said. “We think there are applications for this technology worldwide. But it’s all about getting the first few projects done first.”

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