Vertical farms promise easy access to fresh produce in cities. Advanced robotics are integral to the solution.
New technology promises to change one of mankind’s oldest industries: farming. With the growth of cities, and the urbanization of many rural communities, populations around the globe are looking for ways to bring agriculture closer to where people live, while reducing their land footprint.
Vertical farms are the solution. Controlled, indoor environments let vertical farmers increase the output of their crops, without losing as much product to pests or environmental damage. Hydroponic systems are also more water-efficient, making them a promising choice for arid climates. Moreover, they take up only a fraction of the space of traditional farms, and can be located within the heart of a city, meaning the transportation costs are minimal.
As of 2021, the greatest drawbacks to vertical farming are the prohibitive startup costs, and the amount of energy required to run them. Breakthroughs in energy efficiency are still necessary to make this industry viable. However, each technological advance is making these farms more and more of a possibility, and those who crack the code could be at the forefront of the next biggest industry. A key technology that might just make that happen? Robotics.
How can advanced robotic technology be used in vertical farming?
Recently, advances in robotic technology offer promising solutions to some of the more tricky technical problems vertical farmers face. These offer advantages over other automation technologies that could make all the difference in a vertical farming system. These include:
- Robots do not have to be fixed in place, and can move through a space as needed.
- Multiple axis of articulation allows for greater control.
- Various actions can be performed by a single robot.
- Robots can adapt to their environment instead of needing their environment to be prepared for them.
Wondering how these abilities can be applied to vertical farms? Here are a few ways.
In many vertical farming designs, planting happens through an automated production line, with plant beds cycled through an assembly designed to fill empty slots. However, this may not be the best solution in every application. If a plant bed needs to be fixed in place, then a robot would be able to carry plants to the bed for insertion.
Even in fixed production lines, where the plant beds moved down a line and are filled automatically, robots can fill beds of different proportions and with a variety of plant types, smoothly adjusting their movements to match the new application.
Vision technology is now advanced enough to assess the quality and growth of plants with precision. While vertical farms, operating in a more enclosed environment, have fewer concerns regarding pests and crop damage, they still need to be monitored to ensure the plants are growing well and are healthy.
Robots equipped with visual inspection technology can monitor plants, chart their growth, and predict when they will be ripe and ready to harvest.
Some plant varieties need to be carefully tended throughout their growth cycle so that they don’t become overgrown. Handling this step-through traditional automation would be difficult, due to the unpredictable growth patterns of plants, and doing it by hand can be arduous labor. Robots can use the same visioning technology that allows them to inspect plants to prune them as well, ensuring they continue to grow well.
As we’ve touched on a couple of times now, a major advantage to vertical farms is that the controlled environment keeps unwanted pests away from crops, effectively eliminating the need for pesticides. However, spraying technology can help in other ways. It can fertilize crops, deliver nutrients, and even help with pollination. This means that, between inspecting, pruning, and spraying crops, robots can take over most of the tending work that must be done during the growth cycle.
Perhaps the most delicate stage of the vertical farming process comes when it is time to pick the ripened fruit. At this stage, the lost product represents an entire growth cycle of waste, and this is true whether crops are harvested too early, too late, or damaged in the process.
Fortunately, not only has imaging technology advanced, but so has the technology behind robotic grip control. Robots can now be finely tuned and calibrated so that they do not damage crops while harvesting.
As vertical farming techniques continue to evolve, robots provide a flexible solution to change with them.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of advanced robotics is their flexibility. Vertical farming continues to change, and those investing in this industry should choose technology that can adapt to it. Conveyor systems in vertical farms with single-purpose automation can efficiently produce large volumes of output, but they may not be able to accommodate any changes to their automation design in the future.
Robots, on the other hand, can be reprogrammed to handle containers of a different shape, or planting pods of different weights and diameters. They can move around the farm floor, even if the layout changes. And they can continue to inspect crops, even if the types of plants change from season to season.
The correct solution for each application will depend on the business and its goals. Despite their flexibility, robots are not the best solution for every use case. But they do solve many problems, and those in the vertical farming industry should think creatively about how they can help with crop production. At Eagle, we can work with you to design a system that uses the right technology in each use case. Contact us if you would like to learn more about how robotics can suit your needs.
Brandon Fuller | b.fuller@EagleTechnologies.com
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI