As Brent Frei worked alongside his 81-year-old father picking rocks in the summer of 2017, the wheels began to turn in the serial tech entrepreneur’s head.
“Despite owning multiple types of mechanical rock pickers, we were still picking rocks by hand in the summer heat,” Frei recalls.
Combining his technology-driven problem solving with the drudgery of rock picking, the fourth-generation Idaho farm kid is developing a family of three solutions – an aerial-produced Rock Map, a skid steer or tractor-mounted picker, and an autonomous picking robot to modernize this age-old chore.
“Our TerraClear technology makes rock removal easier by flying the field with a drone, which produces a map showing the size and location of each rock,” Frei says. “The map can then be used to travel an optimized route directly to rocks of concern. Without leaving the machine, a single operator can efficiently clear rocks from the field.”
His company is currently prototyping and testing all three concepts. Each picker is tested for picking effectiveness, productivity, robustness, and safety. The map is tested for accuracy, ease of use, and turnaround time.
“The vast majority of our testing involves running the full system end to end in the fields of the Camas Prairie of Idaho,” he says. “Our farmer partners have been particularly helpful when it comes to product feedback, which we view as the most important part of our testing.”
Smaller stand-alone pieces of the solution are also being evaluated at the company’s indoor and outdoor test facilities under controlled conditions to minimize seasonal limitations.
Frei expects to release a version of each on a limited basis over the next 18 months, with the first rollout of mapping and picking as a service within Idaho this year.
“Automation of mundane tasks like rock picking can free farmers to focus on more important tasks,” Frei says. “An effective solution for rock picking will positively change the pace and productivity of their crunch-time farming operations.”