Mike Boudreau is a professional engineer who uses automation and robotics to solve challenging problems in fields ranging from medical devices to food to transportation. TechBrew Robotics is based in Salmon Arm, British Columbia (B.C.). As the company’s President and CEO, Mike will tell you his team of engineers happily plays with really cool technology used to develop a long-awaited solution to an agricultural industry problem. Globally, the agriculture sector is hungry for solutions to automate repetitive, labour-intensive, delicate, and time-critical activities so they can be completed faster and more accurately. TechBrew Robotics’ agritech robotics solutions are creating digital transformation strategies that help their clients optimize their agricultural business with around-the-clock harvesting, improved quality, and yields.
You’ve provided robotics for medical devices and the transportation industry, and now for agriculture?
TechBrew Robotics traditionally has been solving industrial automation problems for manufacturers around the world, from logistics to food to tilt-up concrete walls. And in the last two years, we discovered an opportunity in the mushroom producing industry and have been working on a robotic harvesting system that would automatically find mushrooms and pick them when they’re the right size to go to market.
Tell me, what kind of issues is your technology solving for agriculture customers?
So, there’s a number of things pushing technology and the need for agritech and robotics. Producers around the world are starved for labour. We’re helping alleviate labor pain for the industry and allowing producers to reliably harvest so they can grow with their market more confidently. And then with climate change there is also the shift to indoor agriculture, which is a must because we’re not going to get the growth and yields growing outdoors.
Where is the opportunity for robotics in agriculture?
We have four seasons in British Columbia. If you look at it from food security point of view, growing foods that we enjoy year-round means using technologies for indoor growing and harvesting, and that’s what the future of agritech looks like. The opportunity is virtually untapped when it comes to deploying technology in agriculture. There’s been a lot of advances in the last few years. For example, in mushroom production they’ve been looking for automatic harvesting for 30-years. We’re being told that we’re two years ahead of the closest competition. So that’s exciting. That’s the thing I love most about agritech, is the opportunity it represents.
Explain a little more about what TechBrew Robotics mushroom harvesting robot does.
We’re working on cool stuff. We’re working on automatically harvesting fresh mushrooms for producers around the world. Mushrooms are very delicate, and they look very much the same. So, from machine vision, robot perspective, it’s a challenging problem on two fronts.
One is being able to uniquely identify each mushroom, determine its size and when it’s ready to pick. And the second major problem is picking it without damaging it because it’s very delicate.
Our agritech solution for automated harvesting uses machine vision to identify the mushrooms, and then a very specialized end effector/tool on a robot to go and pick, trim, and then place them into packaging, and move the packed mushrooms out of the growing room and into the cold storage, ready for market.
What other kinds of issues can machine vision and robotics solve for the agriculture sector?
So, robots can increase food security by reducing the spread of fungal diseases. It’s easy for disease to move from room to room just by hitchhiking on a harvesters’ clothing and tools. With a robot, when they are properly cleaned and deployed, they don’t spread contaminants from room to room. Having robotic harvesting means you don’t need a person in the room, and you know the harvesting work will be reliable and available around-the-clock. When you’re trying to supply the food market with a consistent stream of quality product, these are big issues.
How is British Columbia set-up for agritech success?
I think we’re very fortunate to live where we do. We have a very strong agriculture base with more growing happening indoors with greenhouses. British Columbia is doing a lot of things right when it comes to Agritech. The province has been super at finding ways to nurture both tech business and agritech business. There’s been a real technology push over the last couple of decades in industries like forestry, mining, petroleum, and now agriculture. We’ve got some great [government] programs helping businesses ease our way into the future. Stuff like business investment tax credits and then federally and provincially, our research and development tax credit program and National Research Canada’s Industry Research Assistance Program really supports these kinds of activities.
What’s next for TechBrew Robotics?
The B.C. Agritech Grant is helping our company evolve our technology so it’s ready for a larger portion of the market in Europe. So, we’re basically evolving our technology to access even more markets.
Agritech is thriving in British Columbia, fueled by research centres and top universities, business accelerators throughout the province, and support from the governments of British Columbia and Canada. B.C. is home to over 150 innovative companies that develop and produce world-class agriculture technology to address production issues, sustainability, traceability, and increase food security.
Vancouver tech ecosystem was ranked second in Canada in 2022, and Vancouver-based Visier has expanded their global footprint in Europe and California.
British Columbia (B.C.) representatives recently conducted the first post-COVID-19 forestry trade mission to Japan.