Feature Story

Robots meet indoor farming

by Anne Field

More companies are using robots to boost the efficiency of indoor farming

Though still in its infancy, more companies are using robotic systems to boost the efficiency of vertical farms and greenhouses.

The goal: to produce 30,000 heads of lettuce a day initially using LED lighting and hydroponic technologyIn a 47,300-square-foot facility near Kyoto, SPREAD, an agriculture technology company, is creating a massive, automated, indoor "vertical farm"—and the special ingredient is the use of robots. The goal: to produce 30,000 heads of lettuce a day initially using LED lighting and hydroponic technology, a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent, and with produce on multiple rows of shelving, stacked one on top of the other.

But robotic systems will do much of the work growing and producing the crops, from watering to harvesting. "The farm will be as robotically automated as possible," says Frank Tobe, editor of The Robot Report. For example, cranes will deliver seedlings to small robots, which will then transplant the sprouts to grow beds. The company expects the facility to be operational by mid-2017 and to construct and operate 20 new factories over the next five years, in addition to selling the system for others to use in their own facilities, according to Tobe.  

Robots and indoor farms

While SPREAD is billing its new facility as the world's largest  plant factory, around the world, an increasing number of other growers and technology companies are using indoor farms, also known as controlled environmental agriculture, rather than the conventional outdoor variety, to grow produce and other greenery. Although still in its infancy, in some cases, they're experimenting with vertical indoor operations, relying on hydroponic or other non-soil based methods; in others, they're applying advanced technology to greenhouses.

See also: The farm tech revolution

The key to efficiency, however, is the use of automation, especially robots, as a vital part of the system. The technology does repetitive, tedious tasks usually performed by humans, like constantly rotating containers to get the right amount of sun, for example, or placing items on a conveyer belt. "Robots are perfectly suited for this type of task," says Tobe.

There are many advantages to robotic indoor systems, from the ability to grow food throughout the year, without being affected by weather variations, to a dramatically reduced use of water and lower labor costs. It's also a more sustainable type of production that has the potential to boost locally grown, fresher produce.

"Our aim is to build robotic greenhouses in order to allow for cheaper, local and sustainable produce.. " That's the goal for Brandon Alexander, co-founder of Iron Ox, a Silicon Valley startup building a robotic environment for greenhouses growing lettuce and other leafy greens. He can't reveal too many details, but, he says, "Our aim is to build robotic greenhouses in order to allow for cheaper, local and sustainable produce. The goal is fully automated crop production."

Partial robotics

For now, most systems incorporate robots in part of the process, with other machines and human workers taking care of other aspects of production.

See also: Tech takes hold of one of wine's oldest strongholds 

Take Egatic, a company in Odense, Denmark, that is developing a new system in partnership with a grower of herbs and small flowers to take items from a greenhouse to be packed and shipped. It uses a mix of robots, people and other automated equipment. For example, a conveyer belt transports herbs from the greenhouse to a packing area. Workers place herbs in boxes put together by what CEO Mars Nychel calls "erector machines", but robots place the boxes onto pallets.

Only one person is needed on the assembly line, with a part-time employee supervising. The company will start testing out the new system this year, according to Nychel. Next step: adding flowers to the process.

Lettuce is not like a car                                 

Using robotics in indoor farming is complicated, however. Perhaps the thorniest problem is the variability of each, say, head of lettuce. "It's not like you're making a car and every item is the same," says Alexander. Thus, robots must be programmed to be able to grab, remove and transplant things that are not exactly the same shape.

According to Nychel, his company has been working on a system since 2007 with a client that uses greenhouses to grow tomatoes. The goal is for robots to pick the tomatoes automatically. But the company has struggled with creating a robot able to pick the produce using a sufficiently gentle touch, as well as grab plants that aren't a standard size. They're also using vision systems to allow robots to discern whether each tomato is the right color to be picked.

He figures it should take another 18 months or so to finish the project. "It's been quite a task," he says. "But, there will be very high demand when it's done."   

Ultimately, robotic experts predict that robotic indoor farming systems won't replace conventional methods. Instead, they'll serve as supplements--enhancing agriculture grown the old-fashioned way with a more efficient, sustainable and weather-resistant method for producing crops.


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