As the global population passes 8-billion, supply chains get tighter, labor availability becomes shorter and costs continue to rise, the need for year-round, high-quality crop yield (within a minimal time frame using lower costs and natural resources) is quickly becoming the new standard within the agricultural industry. Providing convenient access to fresh produce in urban areas, smart greenhouses and indoor vertical farms integrated with advanced technologies, including robotic automation, are meeting these challenges head-on while providing a range of productivity gains.
From replacing the dull, labor-intensive tasks of seed planting, crop pruning, crop harvesting and more to leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to optimize conditions for more sustainable growth, innovative tools are working together to enable next-generation farming environments. Popular concepts include:
Soil and Tray Preparation
Depending on the indoor growing environment, soil or an alternative growing method is used. Where soil is used, specialty robots may be used to plow or fertilize the soil before seed planting takes place. In indoor vertical farm settings, the hydroponic or aeroponic method is widely used. For the latter growing environments new crops can be planted as soon as trays and planters from the prior harvest are properly cleaned. Similarly, automated, high-powered cleaning solutions can aid this process, maintaining food safety.
Seed Planting and Starter Transport
Planting robots provide greater accuracy to the seed sowing process over manual efforts and can reduce the time and labor required for this task. Whether using automated dispensing technology to strategically place seeds or implement mobile handling robots to lift, orient and transport “starters” into farming beds, an evolving number of technologies exists. From highly flexible robots with deep learning capability to robotic grippers made with malleable materials such as silicone and other polymers, delicate actions at this stage of the cultivation process are now supported, making a transformative impact.
Plant Inspection and Pruning
Robotic automation with sophisticated vision technology enables crop monitoring at every stage of the plant growth cycle. Machine vision, like the 3D camera systems offered by Zivid, can be coupled with sophisticated AI-based systems to facilitate a variety of farming tasks such as inspection. Furthermore, a variety of observations can be tracked via intelligent software platforms to make informed decisions about crop care. From knowing when to water or prune plants for optimal growth to determining the best time for harvest, robotic technology mixed with smart peripherals creates extremely productive environments. Plus, the use of robots with specialized end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) alleviates humans from multiple dull and repetitive tasks (i.e., pruning) that are prone to injury, freeing workers to perform other value-added tasks throughout the enterprise.
Nutrient and Pesticide Spraying
Consistent and efficient, dispensing robots are ideal for applying fertilizer, spraying water, delivering nutrients and administering pesticides. While the latter is not typically needed in highly-controlled indoor vertical farming environments, it shows the impressive capabilities robots bring to the industry. Robots with intelligent vision and deep learning can easily identify acceptable plants vs. unwanted weeds, spraying “intruders” (when needed) with the appropriate substance. Furthermore, intelligent crop monitoring software can significantly reduce our reliance on phosphate-based fertilizers as regulatory actions are being enacted to limit their use.
Plant Shifting and Crop Picking
Well-suited for providing the utmost control for handling and harvesting crops, intelligent robots with specialized EOAT are also being implemented for tasks such as plant shifting. Whether spacing plants further apart on static beds or moving plants from station to station as they thrive and grow, the market for plant handling robots continues to trend upward. Flexible yet precise robots that can work collaboratively in highly productive greenhouse and vertical farming environments are especially ideal for repetitive injury-prone harvesting tasks (i.e., picking).
Container Moving, Product Packaging and End-of-line Palletizing
Depending on the facility layout, standalone robots or robots on track-based systems may be used to safely lift large, heavy crop trays from one location to the next to facilitate production. Similarly, harvested crops that have been placed on pallets can be maneuvered throughout a facility using autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Product packaging solutions and end-of-line palletizing systems are also ideal for operations looking for speedy farm-to-table solutions to maintain product freshness.
The Future of Indoor Vertical Farms
Not only are indoor vertical farms used for urban farming, but livestock companies are also adopting many of these concepts to cultivate a surplus of feed for animals as well. As trends for these facilities grow, plant scientists will continue to work with robotic engineers to optimize robot capability that diversifies and enhances crop production. Expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 26% between 2022 and 2029, look for the vertical farming market to thrive – where various robotic technologies will continue to evolve and make a positive impact.
Learn More about Robotics for the Food & Beverage Industry
Whether you are looking to expand a current farming operation or are thinking of starting a new indoor farming venture, reach out to our experts to see if robotic automation can complement your strategic goals for the new year.
Plus, if you’re interested in other aspects of the Food & Beverage Industry, be sure to register for our Yaskawa Food and Beverage Automation Series. Our first webinar will cover robotic picking and takes place February 8th. Learn more and register here!
Chris Caldwell is a Product Manager