Are Robots the New Face of Horticulture?

FloraCulture International discusses past, present and future of automated/mechanized greenhouse production. Meet the entrepreneurs revolutionizing the horticultural scene by introducing cutting sticking robots, automated crop monitoring systems, Kompano de-leafing robots in tomatoes and greenhouse process computers that run with artificial intelligence.

ISO GROUP

Raymond van den Berg, ISO Group’s International Sales Manager sees the horticultural world as it really is, “Not every greenhouse job is fun. They can be dirty, hard, tedious and physically taxing. To make working in a greenhouse more attractive and suitable for future employees automation is key.”

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is set to disrupt practically every industry imaginable and horticulture is no different. “The combination of robotics, computer vision and machine learning will dramatically change the horticultural business landscape. Take the ISO Group gripper technique which was developed using practical hands-on experience in greenhouse production. Our aim is to develop new machinery for growers to make their greenhouse operations more efficient and help them reduce labor-intensive tasks”, said Van den Berg

Automation is contributing to a vertical, more transparent supply chain. “The data generated by automation improve overall product quality. For example, growers using our automated cutting sticker, the ISO Cutting Planter 2500, are now gaining more critical insight into the quality of unrooted cuttings. The camera system with built-in artificial intelligence identifies each cutting and examines it in detail. This gives the grower specific data about the quality of the cuttings.”

At the moment, the ISO Cutting Planter is taking the horticultural young plant business by storm. The machine can stick a wide variety of unrooted cuttings. Machines using 3D technology and the ISO Plug Planting machine have also proven popular. The ISO Plug Planter comes with robotic arms that pick up Lisianthus plug plants from the tray and plant them directly into the soil.

Van den Berg disagrees that the use of automation is limited to those who can invest in state-of-the-art technology, those growers who have the money. “We as ISO Group try to make our automation solutions user-friendly and low-maintenance, solutions for a broad grower audience.” He mentions the business plan that is prepared for every customer. It focuses on the very interesting ROI. An estimated three to four years are mostly needed for the ISO equipment to pay for itself. And it’s not only about the big players. For example, among our customers is an individual grower who bought our ISO Cutting Planter Machine. The machine has enabled him to do all the planting by himself without needing to hire extra workers. He is happy that there is now more time for what he really likes… growing high quality plants as opposed to human resources.”

MyWave-Solutions

Jan Schneider, technical director MyWave-Solutions sees a clear future for automated crop monitoring systems in greenhouse production. “There’s a real need for more tools to automatically monitor pests and diseases, humidity, temperature and light. Real time data would allow growers to stay on top of occurring crop issues and offer many new ways for sharing culture data or other best practices with production facilities worldwide.”

According to Schneider, integrated data management can help make the supply chain more transparent. “There’s software available allowing breeders, propagators and their customer growers to develop comprehensive and reliable inventories of possible (systemic) pesticides on their flowers and plants. This can be a useful tool to demonstrate to garden retailers, supermarkets and DIY stores how plants are produced and what (bee-friendly) products have been applied.”

In today’s horticultural business climate, collaboration, communication and connectivity are essential to success. Digital communication is key to maximising these interactions. However, if components aren’t communicating with one another, there will be gaps, obstacles and claims to effective collaboration. With this in mind Schneider launched its Obvision collaboration/communication platform using a mobile website and app. Schneider: “Breeder X creates a new purple Petunia Z, trials and tests it before it is introduced onto the market. Based on their own trials experience they have gathered a wealth of cultural information. Be it breeders, labs, crop protection experts, propagators or finished product growers, a robust administration program is vital for critical aspects of the production process which entails monitoring of PGR and pesticide use. Our tool provides a one-stop solution to register and compare all young plant production-related data. Plant-related issues are fed back into the supply chain to create a framework for continuous improvement. If a plug producer buys the stock material from the breeder to propagate it, he, in turn, will lay down all relevant information regarding crop protection applications. And so will the plug producer’s customer. The ultimate goal is to have a transparent, competitive young plant administration system with detailed information. When new varieties don’t match their description the system serves as a reliable backup for the different actors in the young plant supply chain. Warranty issues can be resolved faster, while there’s no need to run interference on the front end of plant quality. It is also a learning curve for growers proving that overuse of PGRs may negatively impact growth and development, and, ultimately yield.”

Priva

Fixed in place robots are now being used to automatically stick cuttings at rooting stations but Maren Schoormans, Priva’s Vice-President Strategy & Commerce Horticulture, expects that mobile robots will soon follow. Currently, greenhouse robots perform de-leafing and harvesting jobs (strawberries) but they’re also used for scanning crops for pests, diseases and plant deficiencies.

Tight control over the value chain is gaining momentum in many business sectors in order to guarantee supply chain speed, trace product, increase customer trust and achieve business growth. Overall there’s vertical integration in the horticultural supply chain with increased cooperation between breeders, propagators, growers, wholesalers and retailers. However, Schoormans believes this will only happen when there’s mutual benefit among supply chain partners or when at the end of the chain (consumers, retailers) transparency is required. Some retailers will set up ‘closed’, dedicated produce chains that will enable them to reduce risks (ensure supply and quality). Currently, the fresh produce and ornamentals business is comprised of many growers, traders and wholesalers that don’t exchange data or information. But in the future a much more transparent system will arise, one that allows large sales volumes as well as small batches, accompanied by clear information regarding quality and sustainability. This will lead to more feedback, reviews and reliability scores of vendors and buyers.”
Schoormans said that one of Priva’s most promising solutions is Priva Kompano, the de-leafing robot for tomatoes. “We hope to introduce production versions in the coming year and after that we will add more features and tasks to the machine. Today, our FS Performance system allows growers to manage their operations (labour, production, packaging) in an easy and reliable way. Often overlooked and taken for granted as it works in relative silence: our greenhouse process computer Connext. It includes control logic and a user interface that has evolved over the past couple of decades. There’s an option to run it by artificial intelligence  allowing growers to get the most out of their crop production, while using resources (water, energy, crop protection) in the most efficient way possible. Each year we add new functionality to the system and at the moment we’re in the final stages of testing a new set of controls for ventilation, heating and irrigation that make it easier for growers to maximize growth and development for their crops.”
Giving her final thought on greenhouse automation Meiny Prins, Priva’s CEO, said, “Of course, technology will replace some jobs. It already has for centuries. But we also know that new technology creates new opportunities and new jobs as well. And with a world population that is growing so fast that we can’t provide enough food for everyone. We should consider all solutions that enable growers to generate a higher yield and better quality and contribute to a healthy future. We owe it to future generations.”
Schoormans added, “In the end, everything that can be automated, will be automated. In most countries, there are fewer people available that (want to) work in greenhouses, so we don’t have to worry about large groups of people becoming unemployed. I am much more worried about other industries and jobs that can be partially automated and especially the speed in which automation will be implemented in the coming decades. Will the society at large keep pace with these developments?”

by Ron van der Ploeg

 

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