The Global Unmanned Spraying System, or the GUSS.
The Global Unmanned Spraying System, or the GUSS.

By Valley Ag Voice Staff

It was an overcast Friday morning when Mike Vandborg, owner of Sunrise Sprayers, met the Valley Ag Voice in South Kern County to give us a sneak peek at their new Global Unmanned Spraying System, affectionately called the GUSS. Technology is not new in agriculture, but this piece of innovation will make you do a double take. We watched some field workers eyeing the GUSS for the first time as it moved between fields. They were definitely as curious as the Valley Ag Voice was about this cutting-edge piece of equipment. 

Left to Right: Mike Vandborg (owner) and Jose Ramirez (GM) of Sunrise Sprayers proudly show off the GUSS

Vandborg was interested and intrigued by the GUSS for a while before he became one of the first to purchase it. An appealing draw to the GUSS is its development thanks to a Californian agriculture spray company who has been running them in Kern for two years. He felt this made it a more usable piece of equipment for a company like Sunrise Sprayers where they deliver a specific service to Kern’s massive agriculture industry.

The GUSS can be operated with a remote.

Another major catalyst for Sunrise Sprayers to acquire the GUSS was the changing laws and regulations in California. The impact of the seventh voluntary workday made the decision a business necessity. In the spraying business there are certain times of year you need to rush to beat weather and spray the crops. A decision was necessary when 14 employees opted out of working the first seventh workday. The motivation of extra pay didn’t suffice, so something needed to happen. After all if they can’t get a crew in the field to spray, the grower will have to find other options, and his business can lose out on revenue and meeting his clients’ needs. 

With these challenges and the introduction of the new unmanned technology, Sunrise Sprayers made the acquisition of the GUSS in the Summer of 2019. “For a custom spraying operation, it made sense to purchase the GUSS,” commented Vandborg. “Our estimate is that the return on investment can occur between 1.5 to 3 years.” 

Crew sizes for Sunrise Sprayers are normally 7 to 8 people. With the GUSS, crew sizes can effectively operate with two or three people. Vandborg hopes to see 15% to 20% in efficiency gain in acres covered as a result of the benefits of the GUSS. Vandborg added, “We haven’t laid off any core employees and don’t foresee having to. This will help us reduce our reliance on seasonal workers and reduce overtime costs. With thinner margins every year, we had to take this step to reduce costs, find efficiencies and stay profitable.”

Once the GUSS was in position, we were free to walk around it and kick the tires, so to speak. This impressive piece of equipment had many safety features built into it, and the technology allows it to be operated with a remote, follow another vehicle or piece of equipment to the jobsite, or to navigate a field to spray.

First, the field is mapped by satellite using a software package that came with the GUSS. Once the fields are mapped the operator adds a secondary safety boundary around the field. This boundary acts as a perimeter that the GUSS won’t go beyond. It is designed to follow the mapped route. However, if for some reason, it hits the safety boundary, the equipment shuts down.

Mapping the field prior to application is important, especially if the GUSS is spraying an orchard with a healthy tree canopy. GPS can often drop out, but because the field has been mapped, the GUSS continues to operate even if the signal is lost momentarily.

Other safety features include a safety bar that doubles as a bumper and a lower more sensitive sensor that can shut off the GUSS if it contacts a foreign object. Also, the equipment comes with an automatic shut off switch placed in the rear of the sprayer. Cameras and other sensors also help to send critical information back to the operator in case of an issue or if the GUSS must navigate an unknown object in a field. 

Jose Ramirez is the General Manager for Sunrise Sprayers. He showed off the GUSS with pride and described it as a remarkably maneuverable piece of equipment. “It took me about three days to learn how to operate,” proclaimed Ramirez. “Its been interesting to see the team members request to be involved and learn how to operate the GUSS. My staff really surprised me at how well they wanted to embrace the technology.”

Sunrise Sprayers has been testing the equipment for a few weeks and they haven’t had many issues. They started spraying customers’ fields in the middle of March and are now rolling out the GUSS for large field application.

You may see the GUSS out in the fields and orchards of Kern County. If you come across it in action, take a minute to admire the innovation of AI in ag.

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