Picture the inside of your greenhouse in 30 years. What do you see? Is it like the Jetsons, full of robots, moving plants around the greenhouse?
With the rate at which technology is advancing, it’s easy to imagine that the next big advancement in the greenhouse hasn’t even been invented yet. How can the industry keep on top of the rapid evolution of technology in order to benefit from it? Here are the ideas to keep in mind.
Should We Bow Down Now To Our Robot Overlords?
While they both work in robotics, neither robotics researcher John Van de Vegte of Vineland Research and Innovation Centre nor Harvest Automation’s CEO John Kawola think the future of the greenhouse will be 100 percent automated. They agree that the human element of a grower’s expertise will be necessary to grow a healthy crop, and automating every single task in the greenhouse would be a challenge for even the best roboticists. Kawola says he sees people continuing to perform high-value tasks, like harvesting, and robots performing the tasks that could be considered heavy lifting. There are some tasks that people still perform better than robots.
“That’s the concept of people and robots working together,” he says. “We see more and more of that being the model for how robots can be used in agriculture.”
Van de Vegte points to the kaizen manufacturing model of continuous improvement. Moving products around a factory or greenhouse is a process that adds no value to the product itself, and is therefore an expense that should try to be eliminated. Following kaizen, material handling is a process ripe for automation.
What Developments Should Greenhouses Be Watching For?
Sensors. With the cost of sensors decreasing, Kawola says that if it’s done inexpensively and quickly enough, sensors on robots could monitor water content, pH, and the health of every plant in the greenhouse, rather than one out of every 100 or 1,000 plants.
Kawola says Harvest Automation considers the following questions when thinking about incorporating sensors in its products: What they are sensing, how well do they do it and how are they deployed?
“You might be able to get to the point where the incremental cost and time of gauging the health of every plant is basically zero, therefore the information about the plant goes up, and so does the quality of the plant,” he says.
Lower costs will make sensors more accessible, but faster computers and sensing systems will also make us more productive, says Van de Vegte. He points to tomato grading machines that operate at 20,000 plants per hour.
“I think you’re going to continue to see stuff that’s able to deal with data that sensors generate, be that the size, color or whatever, to make it go faster or get that robot moving faster in order to get those productivity gains we need,” he says. “That’s going to help.”
An information layer on top of robots. Harvest Automation’s pot-moving and spacing robots are now beta testing inventory reporting.
“Robots are moving pots, but they’re also counting,” Kawola says. “You’re capturing that information and you can upload and import it into your ERP system. Those are the things that stretch our imagination a bit when we think of a robot that does a specific task, but we are thinking about what else it could be doing at exactly the same time with information technology.”
Van de Vegte says RFID in the greenhouse is continuing to grow and can really help the grower understand what’s going on with their crops.
“It takes the bar code and goes way beyond in terms of the amount of data you can capture,” he says. “I think that’s a direction we’re going to see more of, particularly as the whole piece of crop tracking and tracking the particular plant through its entire life, from inception all the way through to the retailer.”
Out-of-the-box robotics. Not only has the cost of robotics and other technologies decreased, but solutions that are ready to use out of the box will continue to increase, says Van de Vegte.
“It’s kind of like buying a toaster,” he says. “You just take it out of the box and there you go. It didn’t used to be like that. You used to have to do a lot of development when you take equipment out of the box.”
A new challenge for the industry will be to continue to maintain these automated systems with staff with engineering backgrounds. As the horticulture industry becomes more automated, there will be more interest in horticulture as a viable career path, says Van de Vegte.
“I don’t know that I’m expecting a Jetsons future for the greenhouse, but I think we’re still in the early stages of what’s possible,” Van de Vegte says.