Robots for Indoor Farming

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Farming is not limited to outdoor fields. Indoor farms now represent 2.3 million square feet and growing. Brooklyn, New York based Agrilyst, Inc. predicts expansion of indoor farming will reach 22 million square feet, which amounts to roughly 505 acres of land.[i] Although this represents a very small fraction of the 900 million acres of farmland currently cultivated in the U.S., indoor farms offer major yield advantages over outdoor farms. Indoor farms occupy much less space and require fewer human resources. Another advantage comes from the average yield per acre. Indoor farms for vine crops like tomatoes and leafy greens yield more than ten times outdoor farms.[ii]

A new startup in Somerville, Massachusetts called Root AI, thinks they can bring those yields even higher. The company explains their mission,

We believe tomorrow’s farms won’t look like the endless outdoor crop rows we remember and that the security and quality of our food will no longer be limited by an increasingly unpredictable climate or access to land. Instead, hyper efficient indoor farms will grow delicious and chemical free produce. At Root AI, we are on a mission to create the intelligent robots that will help growers build the farms of the future.[iii]

Root AI’s robot, called Virgo, can pick things as delicate as tomatoes and strawberries. Two young robotics entrepreneurs from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have been highly innovative at a not so easy task of picking tomatoes, strawberries, and lettuce without squishing them. Josh Lessig, Co-Founder and CEO at Root AI, said,

The technology is being used heavily in the food industry. What you would buy a soft gripper for is making a delicate food gripper very easy to deploy that would help you maintain food quality with a mechanical design that was extremely easy to manage. Like inflatable fingers that could grab things.[iv]

The Virgo robot does much more than harvesting and picking. As it picks tomatoes at indoor farms, it also inspects the crops to assess their health and prune vines where needed. It observes and updates ripening profiles so the robot can cultivate crops continuously and more effectively than people.[v]

Root AI’s robots have a camera on the robot’s arm to get an up close view of the fruit or vegetable. An additional camera aside of the robot collects color images and 3D depth information to provide a larger perspective on the vegetation. The company uses artificial intelligence to detect any irregularities in the plants and label the images for human review. Root AI uses proprietary vision processing technology to measure fruit ripeness, size, and quality.

Investors are buying into Lessig’s and Root AI’s vision. Lessig sums it up as follows,

There are many roles at the farm and we’re looking to supplement in all areas. Right now, we’re doing a lot of technology experiments with a couple of different growers on assessment of ripeness and grippers ability to grab the tomatoes. Next year we’re going to be doing the pilots. On a personal level I have concerns about how much food we’re going to have [in the future] and where we can make it. Indoor farming is focused on making food anywhere. If you control your environment you have the ability to make food. Satisfying people’s basic needs is one of the most impactful things I can do with my life.[vi]

As a result of the labor shortage and anticipated demand for food, the market for agricultural robots has grown rapidly. The market was valued at $3.42 billion in 2017 and is expected to grow at 21% per year.[vii] Farming automation technologies are emerging in numerous areas beyond harvesting and picking. For example, one of the most widely adopted dairy farming robot systems is used for milking cows. According to the International Federation of Robotics, milking robots represent an 85% share of field robots. Nearly 20,000 dairy farms have installed robots in Western Europe, Canada, US, China, and Japan. The adoption is being driven by increased milking frequency and increased flexibility in deploying human labor.[viii]

Research and Markets, one of the world’s largest online market research companies, cites some other major agricultural projects including GARotics (Green Asparagus Robotics Harvesting System), GRAPE (Ground Robot for vineyArd Monitoring and ProtEction), and MARS (Mobile Agricultural Robotic Swarms) funded by the European Commission to replace manual labor with automation technologies. The MARS system includes use of multiple small robotic vehicles which operate as a “swarm”. The robots are coordinated through a cloud computing infrastructure and precise GPS technology. The result of this precision farming is reduced planting of seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides while achieving higher crop yield.[ix] Another advantage is a reduction in the large soil compaction and energy consumption of traditional heavy farm machinery. Visit robotattitude.info to see a video of MARS (Mobile Agricultural Robotic Swarms) in action.

[i] “Meet Your Virtual Agronomist. Designed for Growers, by Growers,”  Agrilyst (2019), https://www.agrilyst.com/
[ii] Jonathan Shieber, “Your Vegetables Are Going to Be Picked by Robots Sooner Than You Think,”  TechCrunch (2018), https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/08/your-vegetables-are-going-to-be-picked-by-robots-sooner-than-you-think/
[iii] “Introducing Virgo. Join the Future of Farming,”  rRootAI (2019), https://root-ai.com/
[iv] Shieber, “Your Vegetables Are Going to Be Picked by Robots Sooner Than You Think”.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] “Global Agricultural Robots Market (2018-2023): Set to Expand at a Cagr of 21.1% “.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] “Mars – Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms,”  ECHORD++ (2019), http://echord.eu/mars/