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Robots on a farm: Niqo brings AI tech to Indian farmers

Bengaluru-based Niqo Robotics is set to penetrate precision spraying with its AI-backed robots. The company says it lowers farming costs with its pay-per-use leasing model.

Robots on a farm: Niqo brings AI tech to Indian farmers

Tuesday June 11, 2024 , 6 min Read

When we think of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) use cases in India, farming isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. However, Niqo Robotics aims to make this a reality with its precision AI-based spot-spraying robot.

Small and marginal farmers (SMF)—those who have a landholding size smaller than 2 hectares—account for 86.1% of total farmers in India, according to India's Agriculture Census 2015-16, the latest data available. And, farming techniques for a majority of these farmers have remained largely stagnant.

Recognising this gap while running his family farm, Jaisimha Rao, Founder of Niqo Robotics, observed the need for a shift towards a more scientific and precise approach to farming. 

“I think there is a place for wisdom in agriculture, but we need to tilt the scale towards a more scientific and more precise way of doing things,” Rao tells Yourstory.

A Former Wall Street-trader-turned-agritech-entrepreneur, Rao started the bootstrapped startup, under the name TartanSense in 2015. It raised seed funding of $2 million in March 2019 from Omnivore, Blume Ventures, and BEENEXT. 

In 2021, Bengaluru-based TartenSense raised its Series A round of $5 million in 2021, which was led by FMC Ventures and Omnivore; existing investor Blume Ventures also participated in the round. Last year, the company changed its brand identity to Niqo Robotics after launching its proprietary camera.

In its Series B funding round in March, Niqo raised $13 million from Bidra Innovation Ventures, Fulcrum Global Ventures and Omnivore also participated in the round. 

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Niqo specialises in smart spot spraying technology, with its core component being the camera. The camera sees a plant or a space, analyses it against the desired crop, and then takes a decision to act, which is spraying in this case. It executes all these functions on edge, independent from cloud connectivity making it more accessible and cost-effective.

The camera can differentiate between weed and the target crop and sends a signal to the arm to spray.

The idea is to spray the area/plant that needs to be sprayed, after excluding filler crops, weeds and even the gaps between plants. Existing mechanical sprayers and even manual sprayers spray entire fields indiscriminately, leading to higher usage of herbicides and fertilisers and higher chemical content in crops. 

Niqo’s current robot has been trained with 13 models using 3.4 million pictorial points, including cotton, chili, soybean, maize, tomato, potato, cauliflower, broccoli, castor, aubergine, cabbage, romaine lettuce, and iceberg lettuce. Every model comes with varying degrees of accuracy, the company claims its cotton model has an accuracy of 99.4%. 

The startup says it differs from other crop sprayer manufacturers because it specifically focuses on innovating existing sprayer fleets. “There are other spraying companies and we are just a technology provider to make these sprayer companies more intelligent,” says Rao. Retrofitting Niqo's cameras onto existing equipment leads to a lower price point, broadening the target market and offering a more sustainable solution overall.

Niqo Robotics

Understanding the market

In terms of farming, the hardware business is a very controlled market with medium-sized players with available credit taking on a hefty purchase of mechanical equipment and then recouping the amount by lending it to smaller players. 

“The tractors that are sold in India almost 90- 95% of the tractors are sold to these village level entrepreneurs who then rent the tractor out,” notes Abhilash Sethi, Investment Director at Omnivore. 

In line with this ecosystem, Niqo deployed 50 sprayers during the last financial year, 40 of which were leased to village-level entrepreneurs on an annual basis for Rs 4 Lakhs each. The entrepreneur pays the company a one-time leasing fee and then lends it out to smaller farmers for a service fee on an acre level. Farmers pay anywhere from Rs 300-Rs 500 per acre depending on the type of model, time of year and other factors.

Although the model seems like a tailored fit for the Indian agriculture market, it does require more work to make it more financially feasible. 

“Some interesting financial engineering which will need some time for the product to kind of attract finances, specifically the asset financing companies to come in and underwrite these assets. Once that is done I think that model can be very easily sustained in India,” says Sethi. 

The product works on the thesis of providing instant gratification to the farmer. The spot spray technology drastically cuts down the cost of pesticides for the farmer, which is a big expense even for medium-sized farmers. 

Jaisimha notes, “If you try working on problems that increase the yield, that gets challenging, because when you have a higher yield, the farmer generally attributes that yield to different factors.”

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The product has found a sweet spot with farming networks in eastern Maharashtra, Guntur and Khammam in Andhra Pradesh. With the current fundraise, Niqo plans to go global through expansion in North America and Australia with a focus on horticulture applications. 

However, it doesn’t have any current plans to implement the current distribution model in its global plans. “International might not be leasing at all; it will be more of an OEM game of selling the products and then having some kind of recurring revenues on top of it.” says Sethi. 

Under its global expansion, it plans to focus more on horticulture or similar specific applications in line with investor vision for foraying in a niche.  “The focus gets put on large row crop operations in terms of development technologies,” says Duane Cantrell, Managing Partner and CEO at Fulcrum Global Capital. 

“What gives Niqo an advantage, obviously, is its lower cost of production. It can produce systems that are significantly less expensive than some of the other alternatives that are out there.” says Cantrell. 

While Niqo has no direct competitors in the Indian market, companies like Mahindra’s Mitra manufacture smart sprayers. In Northern America, companies like Deere also make smart sprayers and boast a distribution network to sell it along but Niqo’s advantage lies in its wider application and reasonable price point.

According to data from Databridge Market Research, the global agriculture sprayer market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.10% to reach $ 7.07 billion by 2029.

The Indian used agricultural equipment market is expected to register about 22.7% CAGR between FY’21 and FY’26 in terms of volume sold. The growth is expected to be driven by increasing adoption by small and medium farmers and government subsidies to raise demand, according to Ken Research. 

(The article was updated to make a correction in the blurb)

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti