Robotics in Horticulture

Following on my recent blog and webinar on the “Top 5 Business Trends impacting the horticulture industry“, I would like to share more of my thoughts on each trend – starting with the “Robotics Trend”.

As I mentioned, robotics and precision agriculture are making increasing in-roads into Australian horticulture as growers feel the need to search for efficient tools and processes to help them with their business.

This technology is already in widespread use through elements like “self-steer tractors”. And although the technology is not yet widespread in Australia, we should anticipate that it will be the means to achieve reduced labour costs, increased productivity and improved quality.

As Australia is a “high cost” global producer, any change in our cost position will be better for Australian producers and, arguably, ultimately for the Australian economy.

As we discussed, robots of the future will have an impact on most industries – they are already in manufacturing and are moving into agricultural businesses. Many commentators are saying that robots are “a nice to have” but will never have a significant impact. I disagree.

It will not be robots by themselves that will make the difference – it will be a combination of the Robots, Data and Interconnectivity Trends that will accelerate the uptake, availability and capabilities of future robots.

When you can scan your workspace (farm, plantation, nursery, processing plant, etc.) to inventory and scope the environment, then use data and connectivity to analyse, plan and task your employees and robots to do the required tasks – then you will have real power!

The main challenge that I see is that when most people think of robots, they think of “C3PO”, “R2D2” and the “Terminator” – robots in a humanoid form. Either that or they think of retrofitting existing technology with robotics.

Much of our current technology is designed around the need to have space, access, visibility and controls for a human operator and to optimise their labour inputs. This means that we make them big – scaled to optimise output for each unit of human labour.

Without the need for cabs, controls, control visibility and access, we can make our robots smaller, lighter and simpler. The robots of the future will be purpose-built and will be small, agile and economical.

Instead of one large tractor with a huge toolbar, I can see that we will have multiple, mobile, self-propelled toolbars that will complete tasks with less soil compaction and in shorter timeframes as they can operate 24/7, if required.

You will have solar-powered robots that live in the field and complete simple tasks, like mechnical weed control during the night and re-charge during the day. They will be autonomous, small and permanently operational (apart from basic service requirements). The good news is that horticultural robots already exist in a commercial form and this is just the “tip of the iceberg”.

U.S. company Harvest Automation, currently provides innovative robots specifically for the nursery industry. These mobile robots have intelligent and adaptive functions that allow them to perform a range of simple tasks.

The Harvest Robots are small in size and have robust but flexible architecture that allow them to work in challenging environments. They are practical, easy to use, program and deploy, and may be used alongside people or as standalone equipment depending upon a grower’s need and discretion. Productivity improvements are significant.

There is always the issue of robots replacing humans in some work areas, especially in unskilled labour tasks. In some ways this transition is inevitable as many businesses currently struggle to attract quality workers especially in remote locations.

Robots will be a viable solution for some tasks – especially repetitive, mundane tasks that require a high level of concentration, physical effort or completion in an unsafe or toxic environment. We already use robot technologies in our current processing lines with high tech blemish detection and grading equipment – these were jobs that were previously undertaken by people.

However, robots won’t work in all situations as some jobs will always require that human element. However, in situations with inherent safety and health risks, it will be far better to have robots complete all or part of a particular task.

My definition of robots also includes “exo-skeletons”, which are basically “wearable robots” that enhance mobility, endurance and strength. These are currently being trialled within military environments and will enable soldiers to carry large payloads (200 kg plus) across broken country.

Future commercial versions will supplement your employees who are engaged in tasks that require excessive lifting and carrying tasks. They will enable them to work safely for longer and to be more productive. In addition, there will be a new range of jobs – “Robot Wranglers” – to manage, program, service and control your robot employees.

For many Australian horticulture businesses, robots will be a “game changer” that will enable them to be more cost efficient and globally competitive but like all things, this competitive advantage will be short-lived as “Moore’s Law” works to drive down the cost and lift the performance of robots. The impact of robotics on your business can be profound.

The Key Questions are:

• Where can you see robots having the most impact on your business?
• How can they enhance the roles of the people in your business by increasing safety, productivity and accuracy?

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