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Eyeing Next Phase of Automation Inside View – February 2015

Eyeing the Next Phase of Automation

January 20, 2015  By Gary Jones

February 2015 – Machines have been saving humans from repetitive, dangerous or less demanding work for decades. Packaging and palletizing robots abound. In horticulture, we have “specialized, embodied artificial intelligent (a.i.) machines,” including transplanters and potting machines. Fruit grading lines, robotic sprayers and un-manned cart pullers are growing up.

Plant shuttles like “Harvey” (Harvest Automation: are becoming popular. Indeed, the greenhouse itself could be considered a robot; vents, heating, lighting and screens have climate control computers for brains.

So, what’s new?


Drones: Remotely “piloted,” drones are popping up all over agriculture. With “Go-Pro”® cameras, I.R. / heat-detecting equipment and other sensors, these robots are bringing fresh perspectives and providing new data collection, crop monitoring and pest scouting options for modern crop managers.

Unmanned vehicles: Koppert has been developing unmanned ground vehicles (large-wheeled frames with sensors and dispensers) for delivering biocontrol and pollination products to field crops. Add greenhouse pipe-rail systems for numerous other applications.

Greenhouse crop work: Together with a large group of tomato growers, Priva is developing a robot that independently and efficiently performs tomato de-leafing. Priva’s goal is not just a robot that equals human quality performance, it must also be economically viable in terms of work output. A promising prototype with modern optical techniques, a robotic arm and a specially designed cutting module should be able to remove leaves without damaging the crop.1

Advanced Intelligent Systems Inc. of North Vancouver brings years of expertise in the manufacturing industry to design robotic solutions for agriculture. The company is currently developing a mobile autonomous robot to handle and move plant containers throughout nurseries, envisioning them to collaborate with staff and help automate and speed up work.2

The London-based Shadow Robot Company is pioneering the use of robotic hands. It’s “a basic primate skill, but for machines it’s unbelievably difficult” says founder Rich Walker. One of Shadow’s upcoming projects is a robotic hand for strawberry picking. Shadow believes the future lies with robots that intuitively help you with a task when they recognize you need it.

“You might be working on something and need a third hand. A robot would see and just come along and lend that third hand.”3

Greenhouse work is often monotonous and physical. The “Clever Robots for Crops” (CROPS) project was started to develop robots that could help with the care and harvesting of fruit, vegetables and flowers. The aim was to develop robotic systems able to selectively spray and harvest fruit or vegetables while autonomously navigating through a plantation. One of CROPS’ prototype robots harvests sweet bell peppers. It determines which fruit to pick by taking 3D pictures, assessing colour and shape and deciding which are ready and which need more growing time. Soft grippers gently pick the pepper without damaging it. CROPS was a joint effort of 14 research partners from 10 countries, co-ordinated by Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture.4

“Specialized, disembodied a.i.” has also been with us for a while – think of speech or Internet interfaces such as predictive texts on communication devices. While “general artificial intelligence” has yet to be developed, it is the goal of many researchers.

Rollo Carpenter, creator of Cleverbot, says “we are a long way from having the computing power or developing the algorithms needed to achieve full artificial intelligence,” but believes it will come in the next few decades.5

  1. in HortiDaily, Nov 2014
  2. Advanced Intelligent Systems Inc.
  3. Islington Tribune, UK.
  4. Wageningen U.R., in Nov 2014.

Gary Jones is co-chair of Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees.

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