“20 years ago the dairy industry started the robotic milking transformation, with the latest improvement in AI and robotics the greenhouse industry is now joining the revolution,” says Itamar Zisling, business development and pilots manager at MetoMotion.
Itamar works with MetoMotion, an agtech company developing robotic equipment for the greenhouse industry. MetoMotion was recently featured in HortiDaily after its robotic harvester GRoW achieved a 90% success rate in harvesting tomatoes at the De Ruiter Experience Center.
Prior to his work with MetoMotion, Itamar gained significant experience in agricultural robotics and spent 20 years with Lely. As Itamar explains, Lely is the market world leader in the development of milking robots (i.e., Lely Austronaut) and has also developed additional autonomous systems for the dairy industry, including feeding and pushing robots. In 2020, Itamar joined the MetoMotion team and cannot help but notice the similarities between the two sectors.
“The greenhouse industry is now on the verge of a robotic revolution; that transition will likely happen faster than it did in the dairy industry. In the beginning, dairy farmers were skeptical and didn’t think it could replace a human. Then they felt that it could, but not fast enough. Then they worried it would cost too much. Now, there are roughly 70,000 active Lely milking robots worldwide milking 2.1 million dairy cows per day, and this positive trend is only gaining more momentum,” explains Itamar.
Figure 1. Robotic milker by Lely
Similar to the dairy industry, Itamar notes that growers are most focused on how fast greenhouse robots could work, how many people it could replace and how it affects the crop.
“A robotic arm can move faster than a human arm; it just needs some time for the artificial intelligence and algorithms to adapt and become as intuitive as a human worker. Once it learns, these problems are non-issues,” Itamar says.
Greenhouse robotics necessary to sustained growth
Autonomous greenhouse equipment presents the obvious advantage of reducing the labor requirement inside the greenhouse, which could be particularly beneficial in regions where maintaining a stable labor force has proven difficult. Robotic harvesting also combines accurate harvesting with data collection and analytics to help the grower forecast crop yield and time to harvest. Itamar also notes the advantages of greenhouse robotics with respect to biosecurity.
“With COVID, we’re all understanding how difficult but critical it is to control viruses. The same applies to greenhouses. If we have fewer people walking through greenhouses, that would be better,” Itamar explains.
GRoW2 harvesting robot, The Netherlands Aug 2021
Genetics are key to robot success, efficient harvesting
According to Itamar, the dairy industry initially struggled to balance genetics with the implementation of robotics as not all cows were well suited to the system. Similarly, plant genetics will become crucial to ensuring the success of greenhouse robots. And while MetoMotion has brought seed companies into the conversation, the lack of request from growers for robotics-adapted varieties have left this as a non-priority for seed breeders.
“We have a very advanced robotic arm that can capture the cluster and cut it. As robotic harvesters are implemented in greenhouses, we will need resistant varieties that produce a high yield while also being open and strong enough to be approached by a mechanical arm. That would allow a faster harvest speed,” notes Itamar.
Another point is the crop arrangement: greenhouse work practices and infrastructure evolved over many years to provide an optimal growing environment and efficient work infrastructure for people. With the beginning of the robot era, growing environments should have optimal conditions in order to make the most of what robots can offer.
Itamar’s suggestion? That growers consider being early adopters of greenhouse robotics, that they discuss it with their crop consultants and suppliers, and that they inquire about new varieties suited for robotics, helping the greenhouse robotic revolution become a reality sooner than later. As for MetoMotion, the company is fielding daily inquiries about the release date of its robotic harvester GRoW, which is expected to be launched by early 2022.