Robotics in Horticulture
Since finding the labor as well as managing labor cost itself is becoming increasingly challenging in horticulture, developing robotics capable of harvesting could solve this issue, particularly when combined with a production of high value crops. Labor costs currently account for 30 – 50% of the total operational costs, where a human worker operates with an output of 40-60 hours a week. Machine replacement running 24/7 would vastly increase the available machine time per area.
Of course, there is always an issue of robots replacing humans, especially in unskilled labor tasks. Due to the urbanization, this transition seems inevitable as many agri business struggle to attract quality workers, mainly in remote locations. Robots will be a viable solution to complete tasks that are repetitive, dull and dirty as well as physical or unsafe. The jobs lost to machines will be replaced with a new range of jobs to manage, program, service and control these robot employees.
Robotics in horticulture is already a common occurrence, especially in grading and packaging. Color, weight, health and size of fruit or vegetables are automatically detected by sensors after which a robotic arm puts the right produce in the right trey. Machines are also used for planting and positioning of plants in a greenhouse.
Robots for harvesting crops are not yet fully developed. The most advanced systems use a 3D Vision System to detect ripe fruit and calculate their location. This system collects data while harvesting and informs the grower on stress in the plant, forecasts yield and assists with creating work plans.
Equipped with a rich sensory information, round-the-clock availability and manipulators capable of performing basic gardening operations, this platform alone justifies the effort to develop higher level software which supervises beneficial plant combinations in space (polyculture) and time (crop rotation), and which is also capable of mixing annuals with perennials (permaculture), making room for native plants (particularly those that are threatened or endangered). The outcome would also ensure there are enough flowers throughout the season to keep pollinators healthy and save many endangered species from the brink of extinction.