From the Editor: March-April 2013

March 20, 2013
Written by
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 production costs.”

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 areas.”

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.

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