Co-robots and the future of high-tech horticulture

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Projects like Hands Free Hectare, that successfully planted, grew and harvested a crop of spring barley without anyone entering the field, have shown that the farms of the future could be run entirely by robots, not people.

While these proof of concepts are exciting, the realistic future, or at least the near future, is more likely to involve robots working alongside people, or co-robots, as coined by experts at Wageningen University and Research (WUR).

The next generation of robots are more likely to improve productivity by lending a hand, eyes, or even extra brain-power to support growers. Robots will be generating data to help improve decision-making and analysis, or taking-on the more repetitive tasks, rather than replace human labour completely.

This was the view presented by experts at WUR to twenty British growers who attended a three-day study tour organised by AHDB in The Netherlands in June 2018.

Many aspects of horticulture, such as harvesting non-uniform crops, are too challenging for the current generation of robotics and too far in the future to have a realistic impact on production, despite huge leaps in technological development.

Erik Pekkeriet, Business Development Manager, Agro Food Robotics, WUR, said: “My belief is that eventually we will fully robotise commercial greenhouses in the future. However, it will be a hard fight and difficult to automate all the heavily manual tasks in greenhouses.

“We are therefore looking at human-robot collaboration, using robots to scan crops, or automating the more repetitive tasks and distribution around the glasshouse, improving conditions to enable human pickers to harvest more quickly and easily.”

Smart Eyes

New camera technology, from hyper-spectral to 3D imaging, is enhancing vision systems and adding a new pair of ‘smart’ eyes to production.

These cameras can be used to aid crop protection, and WUR projects are exploring their use in detecting diseases like powdery mildew on gerbera, finding signs of Botrytis early on tomato and detecting stem and leaf disease on seed potatoes before they’re visible to the human eye.

Smart cameras are also being developed that can accurately estimate yields, which could transform communication in the supply chain by producers being able to provide customers with accurate scheduling information. The IRIS! Scout Robot, winner of the GreenTech Innovation Concept Award 2018 is able to count cucumber and tomato fruits, assess their colour and measure their size to predict yields.

Many companies internationally are already using smart cameras within electric weeders that use images processed in real-time to distinguish between ‘good’ plants and those that need to be removed.

 

Soft Hands

Fine mechanics, or the development of ‘soft hands,’ that can handle delicate horticultural crops is also a big trend in engineering development. This was clearly evident at GreenTech, with robots such as Autostix and ISO that were able to graft, take cuttings and transplant both cuttings and rooted cuttings, shortlisted for the high profile GreenTech innovation awards.

‘GrowBot’, an AHDB-funded project, is also developing a reprogrammable robot that will enable people to teach robots to do repetitive propagation tasks in ornamental plant production.

Brain Power

The Pasteur Sensor Tag, a low-cost wireless sensor, can predict the true shelf-life of fresh produce, by monitoring product quality throughout the cold chain and could significantly reduce food waste. They provide data to improve decision-making within stock-management that currently operates a first-in, first-out system in to a smarter way of managing produce, based on a ‘first expired, first out’ system.  

The sensor chips measure temperature, relative humidity and light, which is plotted against shelf-life models for fresh produce like strawberries, avocados and roses. This should lead a better customer experience.

Automating repetitive tasks

Bezoek Agriport, the largest orange pepper glasshouse in the world, has automated the movement of harvesting trolleys around their huge production space. The harvested fruit are sent via automated trolleys to the pack-house, removing a previously labour-intensive task and freeing up capacity in areas that robots currently can’t help with, mainly harvesting. 

Gracie Emeny, AHDB Knowledge Exchange Manager, said: “From visual technology like hyper-spectral cameras that can detect diseases such as botrytis and powdery mildew within the crop before its visible to human eye, to fine mechanics, or ‘soft-hands,’ that can graft and transplant delicate horticultural crops to help with repetitive tasks, the technology in development in the Netherlands has huge potential to aid UK enterprises.”

The clear message from the Netherlands was that there will still be a need for people within horticulture production for the immediate future, however there will be a growing role for robots working alongside humans.

James Broekhuizen, Anchor Nurseries, who attended the tour, said: “The potential of the innovation in development in the Netherlands is incredible, but I can’t envisage a time when you won’t need ‘greenfingers,’ experienced growers with horticultural knowledge, within a crop.

“Automated cucumber harvesters are so far away, if they’re ever possible, so this can’t help address our current labour needs. However, robots that can detect diseases earlier than growers can, or technology that facilitates harvest such as automated trolleys, are some interesting areas that could make a big difference to our business.”

The developments already occurring in glasshouse production to make it one of the most high-tech within the food sector are clear, but the speed of this innovation will need to continue at pace and costs will need to continue to come down to enable UK growers to adopt these technologies to help address the challenge of access to affordable labour in the short-term.

The three day trip included: a visit to GreenTech, an exhibition dedicated to technology in horticulture; technical presentations from leading researchers at Wageningen University with a tour of their robotics lab; and a visit to Bezoek Agriport, the world’s largest orange pepper glasshouse.

The tour was part of AHDB’s SmartHort campaign, tackling the issue of access to affordable labour by improving management practices and facilitating the uptake of new technologies.

To find out more about SmartHort, or to discuss your ideas about how the project could continue help UK horticulture, contact gracie.emeny@ahdb.org.uk