To counter uneven distribution, soil contamination, and health risks linked to traditional pesticide spraying methods, Niqo Robotics has developed a precise pesticide application method that uses smart cameras and AI.
While it is impossible to deny the importance of pesticides in cultivating healthy produce, the environmental impact of uncontrolled and indiscriminate blanket spraying is deeply concerning, leading to uneven distribution, soil contamination, and health risks. Bengaluru-based startup Niqo Robotics has developed an innovative solution to replace traditional spraying methods that involve human-operated knapsack sprayers. Instead, they harness the power of smart cameras and AI for precise pesticide application in agriculture.
Founder Jaisimha Rao was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug while in New York. He left behind a comfortable life to return to Bengaluru and immerse himself in his family’s coffee plantations. It was during this time that he recognised a substantial technological gap within the Indian agricultural sector, which encompasses farmers with varying economic statuses. This observation ignited the idea of catering to a customer segment that values technology and is willing to pay for solutions to existing problems.
The startup has developed a Niqo RoboSpray, transitioning from a drone-based approach to focusing on ground-based sprayer robots retrofitted with a smart camera system for precision spraying.
The company’s design comprises a modular camera unit combined with AI processing and output. “The Niqo RoboSpray is equipped with a smart boom, a special nozzle control system, an agricultural camera and a dashboard to allow the operator to select the spraying mechanism. The sprayer boom platform is the foundation for the nozzle setup and camera installation. We leverage this sprayer boom and integrate it into existing tractors or sprayers through retrofitting,” explains Rao.
The camera system integrates several critical components, including an image sensor, FPGA, and the Nvidia AI chip. “The system comprises approximately five to six PCB design boards, which aid in executing intricate timing-based functions, such as image acquisition, comprehensive image analysis, AI-driven computations, and output generation. The camera system must operate synchronously with a player moving through a field at four kilometres per hour. The entire identification, target selection, and precision spraying process must occur within a brief timeframe of just 100 milliseconds,” elaborates Rao.
The startup manufactures the carrier board for the system-on-chip (SoC). It incorporates the FPGA, various components, and the required power infrastructure to make the camera system resilient in temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 degrees Celsius, which are commonly found in outdoor agricultural environments.
Rao explained the reason for constructing their carrier board and the challenges that it resolved. “Previously, we used a master-slave unit with two cameras sharing one SoC. This could lead to the failure of both cameras if the main unit failed. The camera needs vary, based on equipment specifications. We tried a shared AI resource concept last season, but it wasn’t optimal, leading to the latest design’s development,” he elucidates.
The company has launched 50 robots and is targeting to spray an area of over one hundred thousand acres in India. The robots have been deployed in five cities—Akola (16), Guntur (16), Khammam (9), Bellary (7), and Mettur (2). The company offers its technology to village-level entrepreneurs who lease the equipment and provide spraying services to farmers on a per-acre basis. “These individuals, both men and women, are deeply connected with the land, overseeing around 502,000 acres of catchment area. Many of them are already involved in activities like pesticide or tractor dealerships. They entered into a leasing arrangement with us for a year, gaining access to the machine,” Rao says.
The startup has raised about ₹700 million in funding over three and a half years and is planning to raise more. With a team of around 53 full-time employees, additional interns and field-level officers, the company plans to expand beyond India, targeting markets in North America.