Can you imagine a greenhouse “populated” by self-propelled and fully automated planting, deleafing, fertilizing, crop scouting, harvesting, sorting and/or packing units?
There are elements of such automation already in place, and a new wave of robotics/automation is on the horizon.
Research is well established in Europe, and it has made significant
advances. But Canada is catching up quickly. There are at least two
major R&D initiatives in Ontario alone – one at the University of
Guelph and the other at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre
(VRIC). Both teams have prototype systems being fine-tuned, with plans
for future units. It’s leading edge technology and decidedly homegrown.
Why robotics? Labour costs are continuing to rise, and many greenhouse
jobs are repetitive and stressful. It’s hoped that robotic systems can
assume those tasks, allowing employees more time to work the crop.
Wageningen University has long been a leading player in Europe,
partnering with industry and other educational centres to develop new
systems to lighten the labour load. Erik Pekkeriet is the senior project
manager at Wageningen UR Vision & Robotics, and has worked in the
robotics field for 16 years. “This specialty is increasingly important
in greenhouse horticulture,” says Pekkeriet.
The benefits, he says, “are improved quality, continuous improvement of
crop processes, improved consistency of quality and output, and reduced
On the other hand, the challenges are daunting. “Developing robotics for
this sector involves far more than, for example, the design of robots
for the car industry. On any given car model, parts always look the same
and are constantly in the same place. The situation is very different
for leaves and fruit.”
We asked the Greenhouse Technology group of LinkedIn for their views,
and the response was positive. Most of those commenting said they make
good use of the available technologies. For example, environmental
sensor systems, one grower noted, will help save his municipal
government greenhouse operation “thousands of dollars in overtime.”
A European grower noted that “mechanization also allows you to be more
productive, so you can expand without building additional production
Can automation make growers complacent, too trusting in the technology?
Yes, that is a fear, said a few respondents. While offering great labour
savings, the new technologies are “no substitute for regular,
thoughtful (crop) observation.”
Maintenance issues were also addressed. Having staff trained for routine
repairs is important, but the new systems are so sophisticated,
off-site technicians can log into the software from a distance and
quickly diagnose problems.
“We need to continue to focus, with growers, on where the research
priorities need to be,” said John Van de Vegte, who’s leading the VRIC
program. “It’s been so important to have representation from growers
from day one, letting us know exactly what we have to build.”
The push to automate will accelerate. And it will be grower driven.
From the Editor: March-April 2013
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