From farming controllers and smart implements to fully autonomous farming systems, Robs4Crops (a new project) is helping farmers fill labour shortages — shaking up the farming landscape.
The Robs4Crops project will accelerate the shift towards the large-scale implementation of robotics and automation in European farming. With a €7.9 million budget funded by the European Union, the project represents a high-tech revolution with tremendous potential impact on productivity, efficiency, and environmental sustainability. Robs4Crops will demonstrate that robotics and related technologies bring precision and feasibility to mundane, repetitive tasks, reducing the need for people to engage in work that is unpleasant, unhealthy, and requires zero thought. The project started on 1 January 2021 and will run for four years.
A time for change in changing times
The main challenge in European agriculture is a shortage of labour. While labour costs put pressure on how profitable agriculture can be, the COVID-19 pandemic shows that scarcity of labour is even more significant and can jeopardise the how the food chain functions — from farm to fork. Growers across Europe are reporting a shortage of workers. Fields of fruit and vegetables were not harvested because thousands of seasonal workers were unable to travel to work due to the virus.
From stand-alone units to a complete robotic system
As a result of the coronavirus, there is now heavy investment in robotics and automation in agriculture, which marks the beginning of a structural change in the agrifood sector. At the moment, robotics is still only used sparingly in agriculture on a commercial basis. From a technical point of view, agricultural robots are not yet reaching their potential because they are used as stand-alone units rather than as part of a complete, innovative robotic system. From a non-technical point of view, there is not much of a place for agricultural robots in current farming practices and they are not supported by a network.
Smart implements, autonomous vehicles, and farming controller
Robs4Crops will address technical challenges by creating a robotic farming solution consisting of three elements: smart implements, autonomous vehicles, and the farming controller. Existing agricultural machinery and tractors will be upgraded so that, together with existing agricultural robots, they can function as parts of a robotic system. Development and testing will take place in practice, under real operating conditions, in four countries, and in close collaboration with stakeholders.
Affordable through use of existing agricultural machinery
Robs4Crops will tackle non-technical challenges by using existing machinery, thus reducing the initial investment, and by addressing maintenance, insurance, financing, and training options. Regulations, robo-ethics, and socio-economic impact will also be discussed. Robotics offers an opportunity to develop new business models. Building the ecosystem for agricultural robotics will be an iterative process paralleling technical development. Demonstrations of the complete robotic system (technical and non-technical) will be conducted on the scale that the system will be used for in practice. The trials will be conducted in partnership with commercial farms and business leaders from France, Greece, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Mechanical weed control and spraying against pests and diseases
Robs4Crops aims to address and resolve the organisational and technological challenges that currently stand in the way of the large-scale adoption of agricultural robots. By building on existing farm machinery, standards, and practical pilots, the project will shape and deliver an autonomous system ready for large-scale commercial trials. The new flexible and modular systems will greatly reduce the dependency on hired labour, increase safety, and reduce the overall carbon footprint of food production. The project focuses on the most demanding and repetitive field operations, specifically mechanical weed control and spraying against pests and diseases.
Mainstreaming robotic farming
In a courageous attempt to make robotic farming mainstream, Robs4Crops will provide a safe testing ground for iterative development and innovation through a network of collaborating partners. We put the end-users at the heart of everything we do: from user requirements analysis to the business model experimentation process. The project will increase its impact by collaborating within the growing pan-European ecosystem of Digital Innovation Hubs and EU-funded projects such as SmartAgriHubs and agROBOfood.
Dr Frits van Evert, Senior Scientist at Wageningen University & Research and Robs4Crops Project Coordinator: “Agriculture is very sensitive to the cost and scarcity of labour. And making cultivation practices more efficient and sustainable is critical. Robs4Crops is a game-changer in revitalising the European food and farm industry and the vital ‘catalyst’ in accelerating the adoption of high-tech robotics and automated technologies in agriculture.”
For more information:
Wageningen University & Research
Japanese tomato harvest robot in action in Tomatoworld
A new tomato harvesting robot has recently been driving through the paths of Tomatoworld. It is the latest product of inaho Europe, a subsidiary of the Japanese company inaho. “The purpose of launching the demonstration at Tomatoworld is to allow more interested people to see the robot in operation,” says Takahito Shimizo, managing director of inaho Europe. “We want to demonstrate the robot and receive more feedback from growers, in order to develop and increase the value of the robot.”
Snack tomato robot
Tomatoworld is a horticultural information and education center in Westland, Netherlands. In the greenhouse, snack tomatoes are grown.
Takahito Shimizo shows how the robot is a fully automatic harvesting device for snack tomatoes. “The AI algorithm identifies the ripe fruits by color and size and then harvests the ripe snack tomatoes.”
inaho has already conducted field trials with growers in Japan and demonstrated a reduction in human working hours of around 16% by setting up a workflow in which robots harvest during the nighttime before humans do.
Meanwhile, inaho also found that there are differences between Japanese and Dutch growers in terms of harvest and post-harvest operations. “For example, the standards for the picking appropriate color of the fruits and the frequency of harvesting are different,” says Takahito.
In order to develop a solution that is more suitable for Dutch growers, inaho is keen to get a better understanding of the Dutch growers’ practices and receive more operational feedback from them. In this context, inaho is also actively seeking a grower partner who would be able to carry out a field trial of the harvesting robot.
The demonstration in Tomatoworld also contributes to this: growers are invited to come and see and assess the robot. “We are happy to discuss details about the robot, such as its functions and expected future updates. We can also provide simulations to calculate the labor and cost savings, based on the results of the trials in Japan,” Takahito says.
It is not the Japanese company’s first robot. inaho already launched an AI-equipped asparagus harvesting robot (video) in 2019. They are also working on a robot that can phenotype plants. inaho operates according to the Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) business model – paying per harvested product.
Symphony of Salad Studies
Ten years ago, the first container farms began to appear in the United States, where enterprising startups tried to grow salads and other green crops. They began to install containers at the places of harvest consumption so as not to waste time, effort and money on the delivery of goods. The first to go were the unused containers of the Boston port, which, instead of being recycled for scrap, were given a second life in the form of high-tech hydroponic growing facilities. As a matter of fact, the containers themselves, in the aspect of this innovation, fulfilled only the function of a rather strong and usable shell of a living organism of a farm. It is based on autonomous equipment, the work of which is somewhat reminiscent of the device of musical instruments – with their help, the energy of thought is transformed into a symphony. And in this case, we are talking about agricultural masterpieces, where mechanical actions programmed by a person, aimed at growing vegetables, are performed by robotic equipment of the farm. It brings together the best developments in industrial programming, energy conservation, and agricultural innovations. In other words, a new scientific direction is being obtained, which can be conditionally called “salad studies”. After all, it is salads that have become one of the most successful and therefore popular crops on container farms.
It is interesting that similar projects began to appear in Ukraine as well. One of the first was the Smart Oasis Farm startup, which became famous for the invention of the “oasis” with fresh water, in other words, installations that are able to generate drinking water from the air. This development has even been tested in the United Arab Emirates – in Dubai. Now Smart Oasis Farm is setting up the production of container farms. Founder of Smart Oasis Farm Alex Prikhodko and development director Anatoly Kalantaryan shared information on how entrepreneurs manage to do this.
– How did you select equipment for the farm, where did you find information about what it should be?
– For about six months we have deeply analyzed similar projects in America, Australia, the Middle East – what technologies and equipment they use, methods and materials. After that, an understanding came of how and what to apply. By the way, there are not many container farms in Europe so far. After analyzing competitors, an analysis was made of potential partners who are already engaged in such solutions. Negotiations led us to the fact that we decided to build our greenhouse ourselves. For the next six months, we selected and ordered components for creating a prototype of a container greenhouse, made molds and hardware software, placed orders and agreed on parameters. It turned out that the entire internal layout of the greenhouse – nodes and elements, modules and automation – became our author’s development. The lion’s share of the equipment was manufactured in Ukraine, what they could not do from us was purchased in China, as well as the container for the greenhouse itself.
– Has the greenhouse been commissioned yet?
– Yes. Geographically, it is located in the Cherkasy region. -Plus, now it is possible to place the second and even the third similar box on the first container in order to clearly demonstrate the scaling of the project.
Now we are working on improving the greenhouse hardware. From the fan to each pump in the system, the controls are electronically controlled. Our key task is to drastically reduce water consumption, excluding its losses during evaporation. After all, plant nutrition is carried out by the aeroponic method.
– What was the most difficult thing?
– It was difficult to do this at all stages, there is no one to turn to for advice. But the work carried away. The prospect of the business, the ability to grow a completely ecologically safe product, regardless of the external environment, climatic conditions, as close as possible to the place of its consumption, also inspires.
– What challenges did you face when choosing crops and planting material?
– The cultures that we decided to master in the first place are basil, lettuce, baby bodice. It took a long time to select the optimal variant of the substrate, capable of ideally working with aeroponics technology. We tried both peat and coconut. They also experimented with organic substrates, linen and hemp rugs. Basalt wool came up best of all, since the material does not leave dirt behind, has a high level of absorption, retains moisture for a long time, while being inert to the environment and neutral in structure, that is, it does without oxidation or alkalization.
It was easier to choose planting material – we use Rijk Zwaan seeds. We spent some time experimenting looking for an answer to the question of the economic feasibility of using more expensive pelleted seeds and found that these costs are unnecessary in our case. At least, we did not observe an increase in yield when using pelleted seeds. We use GHE products as a fertilizer supplier. At the moment, we are preparing to grow berries and low-growing vegetables. In order to achieve optimal system settings that will speed up the growing process without losing the organoleptic characteristics of the product, sometimes we even deliberately expose the plants to additional risks, for example, we increase the temperature in order to identify critical indicators based on the results. To calculate the economic component, you need to grow the crop, weigh it, and understand what operating costs accompanied the process.
– What are the yields, do you have experience in their implementation?
– The average weight of lettuce or basil, which we get from one seat, is from 125 to 150 grams. By using a different type of containers, more spacious and oversized, we plan to increase the number of seats from 1440 to 1900 by increasing the number of tiers from four to five. Consumption of seeds per one seat is 3 pieces. The payback of such a greenhouse on salad and spicy crops at their current market price is 3-4 years.
So far we have not been selling the lettuce that we have grown. We were happy to entertain everyone – friends, guests, employees and all those who help us in launching production.
– How are you going to develop the project?
-“We are preparing to launch mass production of such container farms, which can be combined into large greenhouse complexes, where different crops can be grown at the same time. We are going to sell such boxes and technology.
– And what about the financing?
– The project has a strategic investor who has allocated the current round of financing. At the moment, we are also discussing with him further investments to create an industrial complex capable of providing the production of dozens of container-farms per month.
– What can you say about potential buyers of such farms?
– These are educational institutions that are obliged to provide children with fresh produce, and farmers who are already engaged in this business, but cannot get the predicted harvest, as well as the HoReCa segment …
In fact, we have created an electronic technologist, where all agro-technological maps are already included in the software. It is not necessary to be an agronomist to successfully grow crops in such a container.
– Where do you see great prospects in increasing the number of container farms or converting urban facilities into ecosystems for industrial plant cultivation?
– Both options make sense – both have their advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of re-equipment of existing urban facilities include the availability of communications (water and electricity), partially prepared infrastructure. However, to ensure maximum energy efficiency and due to the specific climatic conditions required for growing plants, the room still needs to be additionally waterproofed and thermally insulated. And also integrate a climate control system into it, which will make it possible to grow crops that need similar climatic requirements.
The advantages of container farms include the absence of the need for capital or repair work, and the readiness to quickly launch such complexes. It is important to note that each greenhouse complex is a closed climate cycle that allows you to grow different crops with a variety of climatic requirements.
– Why, in your opinion, urban farming in Ukraine is not developing very rapidly, when to expect a boom?
– Due to the abundance of natural resource opportunities that Ukraine has. But over time, this segment will begin to develop more rapidly in our country due to economic, logistic and technological factors. Also, this direction carries with it the greening of both production and consumption, which, in turn, also develops and becomes more in demand by people, companies and the state.
Israel – from artificial roots to drip heating
Growing food at high temperatures with little water is very common for Israeli growers.
“That’s why growers worldwide can use their solutions to adapt to warmer weather conditions,” David Silverman, advisor to Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, recently told a webinar last week where Israeli companies showcased their greenhouse technologies.
“Despite its small size, Israel has a dense amount of agricultural and horticultural research institutions. With our diverse topography and climatic zones, we manage to maintain intensive cultivation in the desert.”
According to David, the solution should be threefold: genetics, developing resistant varieties, migration, choosing the right zone to grow certain crops, and implementing technology. Gaining knowledge about these Israeli technologies and cultivation solutions was the aim of the webinar Greenhouse Technologies organized by the Foreign Trade Admission of Israel in the Netherlands. During the webinar, Israeli companies presented their solutions for growing in harsh climates.
Ziv Shaked from DryGair presented their solution for reducing humidity in greenhouses. Because pathogens and fungi thrive in moist air, it is important to lower the humidity. In addition, humidity and energy go hand in hand.
The DryGair solution absorbs water from the air, which is condensed inside the machine. This ensures air circulation in the greenhouse, where the air is also cooled and a homogeneous climate is created.
In the Netherlands, DryGair works together with Royal Brinkman to provide growers with this solution. The water collected in the machine can later be used for irrigation.
Itamar Ziseling of MetoMotion discussed global labor shortages in the horticultural sector. To counter this shortage, the company has developed a system to reduce labor costs. The Greenhouse Robotic Worker (GRoW) is a self-contained device with two robotic arms, a 3D vision system and a camera system with which the crops can be monitored. The robotic arms collect the harvested products, place them on a treadmill, after which they are packed and transported.
Thanks to the camera, GRoW can also harvest at night. “The financial value of GRoW is enormous, and the payback time is less than 2 years, while saving 80% of labor, allowing growers to focus on their product rather than the reliance on labor,” concluded Itamar.
Tal Maor of Viridix noted that it is difficult to figure out what crops actually need. Therefore, they have developed a tool for the analysis of collected data using an artificial root.
“With the right tools, growers can control irrigation in a simple and effective way,” Tal said. The artificial root based on solar energy can remain in the ground for years and can be used both in the open ground and in greenhouses. “All relevant data can be found on one platform, for every crop type and irrigation system. The results are difficult for every grower to interpret. That is why we can link the system to an irrigation control system, creating an autonomous irrigation solution without the hardware in the greenhouse needs to be replaced.”
Israel is known for their drip irrigation systems. However, Erez Gold from Thermo Siv presented an innovative green heating solution, which can also be called the heating equivalent of the drip irrigation. Their product is a coated yarn that can be heated and provides accurate heating close to the crop. The material can be used for heating the roots or for vertical placement next to the plants. It is interesting to see that this material is also used in the automotive sector. There are many advantages to cooperation between sectors.
Lior Hessels of GrowPonics discussed an entirely different problem: although substrate growers prefer to use organic fertilizers, this is often not enough for their crops, according to the producer who makes smart use of bacteria.
The company has started imitating the production process of chemical fertilizers, but in a natural way. Bacteria are used to absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, since plants cannot absorb the nitrogen from the air.
Hagai Palevsky of Agam Greenhouse Energy Systems highlighted the dangers of excess humidity in greenhouses, which causes the spread of mold, mildew and other pathogens. The Ventilated Latent Heat Converter absorbs the air via a salt solution and then filters it. In this way the greenhouse can be closed and energy is saved. Also, the temperature is regulated if necessary. This can both replace and supplement the existing air conditioning systems in the greenhouse.
Finally, Eytan Heller of Arugga AI Farming spoke about labor shortages as a major problem in horticulture. That is why Arugga has developed an autonomous soil robot for the treatment and monitoring of every plant in the greenhouse. They focused first on tomatoes and in particular on pollination. The robot is based on AI and imitates pollination. Extensions of the robot allow for non-contact pruning, detecting diseases and predicting yield. Because the business model is based on leasing, the robot is more affordable for growers.
Israel announces creation of global seed company
Karachay-Cherkessia became one of the leaders in the production of greenhouse vegetables at the end of 2021
December: Special Year Overview
Horticultural machines – Engineering & automation
Recent advances and perspectives in the treatment of hydroponic wastewater
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Horticultural machines – Engineering & automation
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