Experience

This Plan B stands for breakthrough

Jan Garrison
 

Haldewang leads InsightTRAC

 

January 18, 2022

Anna Haldewang ’11 has made some unexpected pivots since graduating from Culver Academies. But those switches have placed her at the verge of a major breakthrough in the agricultural technology field.

Haldewang is currently in northern California demonstrating an unusual form of pest management for almond growers. She is the founder of InsightTRAC, a tech company that has developed an autonomous rover that literally shoots navel orangeworms out of the almond trees.

In the relatively short period of less than two years, she has gone from first learning about the pest that can cost almond growers $200 to $300 per acre to demonstrating a prototype for use during the winter sanitation period of January and February. All while battling the different obstacles placed in front of her team during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The concept and technology are “pretty unique,” she explained. “You’re not going to see it every day.”

But, so is the problem, she learned. Almond growers in California and Australia have been trying to find a cost-effective way to rid their trees of navel orangeworms for decades. When growers harvest the nuts by mechanically shaking the trees, the immature nuts remain attached. Those nuts, known as mummies, become the perfect home for the pests.

The worms eventually change into moths, which damage the nuts during the growing season. Approximately 58% of the rejected almonds are traced back to the moths. Haldewang said a tree averages 50 mummies and some may have more than 100.

Growers currently go through the almond groves during the “winter sanitation” period to either mechanically shake the trees again or have farmhands strike the branches with bamboo poles to knock the mummies loose. Shaking the tree can damage it and the bamboo pole method is labor intensive. Both are also time consuming.

 

 

The InsightTRAC rover locates the mummies hanging in each branch and shoots a biodegradable pellet to knock each mummy loose. It is an Airsoft gun on steroids, Haldewang said. The two DARTs (dual axis robotic turrets) are accurate up to 30 feet. Tests have shown the rover recognizes and removes 95% of the mummies from each tree.

The accuracy of the machine is due to information that has been painstakingly gathered and fed into its system. Haldewang personally shot 20,000 photos of almond trees with mummies. A team of people then went through and circled the mummies in each photo and that information was fed into the rover’s memory so it could identify them.

Haldewang laughs now when she thinks about it. “I broke five cameras,” she explained, adding she used cheaper computer cameras to keep costs low.

The speed in which the rover can clear an acre is another major advantage. Running on batteries that last for three days and carrying approximately 130,000 pellets, it can clear an acre of approximately 130 trees in three hours and cover 425 acres in one session. It runs day and night, rain or shine, and only needs one person close by to watch it and to refuel the diesel generator used to charge the batteries.

Haldewang said InsightTRAC also provides information on the number of mummies found in each tree. Based on that data, the farmer can make decisions about whether to go back and do a second harvest in some sections or check the number of mummies against the soil moisture content in that part of the grove.

The prototype now being tested is a revised version of the five different concepts tested in Australia during its winter sanitation period of June and July. Other removal methods tested included a water jet and air jet.

Throughout it all, Haldewang and her team of hardware and software engineers have been working remotely. They are spread across the country, living in California, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan. The product design firm that built the rover is based in Michigan and Haldewang and her father, Bill, pulled it by trailer from her home in Syracuse, Indiana, to Sacramento, California, for the demonstration.

 

The InsightTRACT rover makes its way through an almond grove.

 

While InsightTRAC team has continued to work on the rover and its software through the pandemic, it did cause headaches when it came to building the actual robot. Supply chain issues slowed down delivery of needed parts. Haldewang also freely admits to hoarding any needed computer chips. “I stocked up on those guys,” she laughed.

And the market for the rover doesn’t stop with almond growers, she explained. Pistachio nut growers have a similar problem and their winter sanitation period falls in March and April, Haldewang said. There are approximately 300,000 acres of pistachio trees in California, which produces one-third of the world’s supply.

The goal is to sell a rover to an almond grower. The company would then train them in running the robot and provide technical support as needed, she said.

The concept for the rover came to Haldewang while she was working on her first start-up, Plan Bee. She originally developed Plan Bee as part of an industrial design class project at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her concept was to have a small drone distribute pollen similar to honey bees.

She came up with the concept after researching the potential collapse of the honey bee population. She built a prototype and demonstrated it for the class project.

What Haldewang didn’t anticipate was her project going viral. She was suddenly featured in newspapers, magazines, electronic media, and online. It was overwhelming, she said. “I wanted to go hide in a closet.”

But the interest also convinced her there was probably a market for the drone. After graduation, she moved back to Syracuse and got to work on refining her drone and finding potential markets for her product. That led her to the Purdue University Foundry, a center set up to assist entrepreneurs, and the people there helped her find a potential market with the almond growers.

 

The original Plan Bee drone.

 

Almond growers rely solely on honey bees for pollination. Haldewang said beekeepers bring their hives from across the United States to California during the pollination period, putting the bees under a lot of stress. It takes two hives per acre and there are one million acres of almond trees in the state.

The market was perfect for an alternative solution but Haldewang’s initial designs had trouble navigating among the tree branches. She turned to a ground robot but it wasn’t feasible, either. But it was during this testing period, one of the growers connected to the Blue Diamond co-operative told her about the navel orangeworm problem. And the light bulb went off.

Haldewang quickly turned her attention to solving the pest problem and temporarily shelved Plan Bee. The concept is still on the table, she explained, but when she does revisit it, the drone will be under the InsightTRAC nameplate.

This wasn’t the first time Haldewang has made a pivot. She originally went to SCAD to study fashion design. But during her freshman year, she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. A counselor at the school suggested she look at industrial design and had her talk with an upper classman majoring in that subject.

But Haldewang was also talking with members of a yacht crew she met while in Savannah, Georgia. They told her about their experiences and that she should move to Fort Lauderdale to find a job on a private yacht. She decided to take a year off and join the team. “Imagine that conversation with my parents.” she said.

She went through the training, joined a crew, and traveled the world. One year turned into two. All the while, Haldewang took online classes at SCAD to stay enrolled and saved her money for when she returned to campus. And, when she did, Haldewang took industrial design classes and discovered she loved it.

Now, instead of creating designs for the fashion field, Haldewang is wearing field boots and demonstrating the InsightTRAC rover in the almond groves of northern California.

And she couldn’t be happier.

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