Is vertical farming the future of agriculture? Is it possible to grow crops more sustainably beneath city streets? Can a floating farm complete with cows function successfully? Will greenhouses replace rooftop bars? With the world’s population expected to climb to 9.7 billion, it’s time to think of new solutions for feeding the planet. Farmers 2.0 are already transforming fiction into fact. Vertical, floating, underground and urban—the farms of the future are already here. Then fly with our journalists through the hot skies of Dubai. Live from ArabPlast, the number one Middle East trade show for the plastics and rubber industry, DirectIndustry e-magazine serves up the latest innovations.
Vertical, floating, underground, urban: visit our selection of 4 farms of the future.
1. Vertical Farming: Green Sense Farms, Indiana, USA
Courtesy of Green Sense Farms
Green Sense Farms is a large indoor farm using LED grow lights. Vertical farming—growing crops vertically in stacked layers—allows owner Robert...
Planting seeds, harvesting fruit and organizing greenhouses are all typical farm tasks. But will they remain so? Farm robots have started entering the field and might even determine what will be produced.
Global sales of agricultural robots are increasing and could reach $16.3 billion by 2020, according to areport byWinterGreen Research.
Seedling ideas are becoming robotic realities, as innovations designed to reduce labor costs, save energy, increase production and perhaps even tackle global food shortages are emerging.
Dr. Belinda Clarke, Director at Agritech East, a UK-based membership organization bringing farmers and growers together with technology developers and scientists, says robotics is now even determining what will be planted. It could mean considering breeding the crops so they are better suited to robotic harvesting.
In protected crops [crops grown in green/glasshouses], robotics are starting to make a big difference—so much so that breeders are now starting to look at traits which mean the fruit or vegetable is more amenable to robotic harvesting. This shows a real long-term commitment to this kind of technology, which isn’t going to go away.
According Clarke, robotic agriculture has become a reality because of “the juxtaposition of machine learning and soft robotics with the ability to manage large data sets.”
Bringing all those highly complex and sophisticated disciplines together means robots can now ‘see’ and ‘learn’ what a harvest-ready product looks like in the field, and can selectively harvest it.
Pick of the Crop
In Spain and in California, Agrobot’s strawberry harvesters are doing just that, explains CEO Juan Bravo.
Our SW60s are self-propelled industrial machines equipped with dozens of independent robotic manipulators that are able to pick fruit one by one. Key elements of the robot’s patented technology are its harvesting tool, which is especially designed to ensure delicate and smooth fruit treatment, and its advanced computer vision, which is vital to pick only ripe fruit that meets the standard.
Savings are made by reducing labor costs and only picking ripe fruit, Bravo observes.
Planting the Idea
In North America, Charles Grinnell, CEO of Harvest Automation says his company’s HV-100 robots are also labor-saving. In addition, they reduce injuries and increase efficient use of space in greenhouses and nurseries.
Working in teams, these small, easy-to-program, mobile robots carry out a wide variety of plant-handling tasks, including spacing, consolidation and collection.
They have automated loading and unloading capability and are safe and flexible. They have been designed not only to navigate within current infrastructure, but also to change and manipulate their environment. In addition to performing work, they are efficiently collecting information that can be used for analysis and production planning. Future products will include additional sensing and image capture technologies that will allow for more scalable data gathering.
Altman Plants have four HV-100s, working in their 60-acre rose nursery in Lake Matthews, California. The robots can space some 200,000 plants during peak shipping time without affecting labor availability, explains general manager Jim Hessler.
The result is a higher quality rose and far fewer plants that need additional pruning and another growth cycle.
Teams of small, autonomous robots were also a key part of David Dorhout’s concept when he came up with his working prototype, Prospero the Robot Farmer.
Prospero is controlled with a Parallax Propeller chip (a multicore microcontroller) mounted on a solderless, Propeller protoboard for circuit creation. Its body is designed by Lynxmotion and it is programmed to walk in any direction while avoiding objects.
An under-body sensor tells it if a seed has been planted in the area at the optimal spacing and depth. Prospero can then dig a hole, plant a seed, cover it and apply any pre-emergence fertilizers or herbicides. It can also communicate to other robots in the immediate proximity via IR that it needs help planting or that the area has been planted and to move on.
Dorhout, who runsDorhout R&D, believes intelligent robots like Prospero working together in a “swarm” can free the farmer to focus on his business and the science of farming.
One farmer working on his tractor has to make large scale decisions. He can only spread himself so thinly. Prospero can make decisions at a ‘higher resolution,’ based on factors such as soil condition. It can operate on a very small scale. If it is too wet to plant a corner of a field one day, then it can come back to replant later.
Simply the Best
While some agricultural robots are team players, others are loners that still offer great benefits.
Tom Calver, director of Westcombe Dairy, producing cheddar and other cheeses from its own milk, has recently become the first UK producer to introduce a cheese-turning robot.
Turning the cheeses in the farm’s cheese cellar to redistribute moisture is an essential part of the 12-to-18 month maturation process.
We used to turn 5000 cheeses by hand, but it was a job no one enjoyed doing in a cold store, and it was not always carried out with consistency.
Designed byJNJ Automation in Switzerland, the robot, now affectionately known as “Tina the Turner,” was drafted to help.
It can be programmed easily via a touch screen panel and left alone to turn the cheeses, place them on a different shelf and even vacuum or brush the tops off. For us, the great benefit has been the improvement in the quality of our cheese.
The Future for Farms?
Dr. Clarke says she is “continually amazed and inspired” by developments in agricultural robotics.
I think these are unprecedented times for the industry. Reducing the costs will happen over the future years, as will inter-operability with existing systems—for example, being informed by GPS about the weather. [Robots] are going to need an energy source. That needs thinking about, but none of this is insurmountable.
Various smart technologies are being developed to increase farming efficiency, with heavy focus on automated machines and GPS guidance.
Case IH, which provides innovative solutions for agribusiness, recently introduced an automated concept tractor in the US. The prototype driverless tractor was...
GOEBEL IMS recently introduced its Interslit slitter rewinder for intermediate-width packaging films. During ArabPlast, the company revealed it was developing a compact unit to cater to the demand in the UAE and other Gulf states. DirectIndustry e-magazine met with Patrick Lindemann, sales manager for film at GOEBEL IMS.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: In a nutshell, what does GOEBEL IMS do?
Patrick Lindemann: We’re a 165-year-old German company specialized in the manufacturing, engineering and development of slitter rewinders for all kinds of applications, including packaging films, battery separator films and metalized films. It’s part of the film production process. After production, the material needs to be cut into several smaller rolls, and this is what our machines do. It’s a complex process, and we cover one part.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: What different kinds of machines do you offer?
Patrick Lindemann: Our machinery covers different material widths. The XtraSlit 2 is a slitter rewinder for narrow rolls—plastic film that was produced with a material width of up to 3.6 meters. In contrast, the Monoslit cuts material from 7.5 up to 12 meters in width. No company in the world can handle wider material.
The latest technological development we have is the Interslit. It covers intermediate material widths ranging from 4 to 7 meters, and can reach speeds of up to 1,200 meters per minute. We developed this model because there was an increasing demand for mid-sized material slitters. Launch was in October 2016.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: What type of company do you generally supply?
Patrick Lindemann: We supply most of the major film manufacturing and converting companies, and have supplied over 9,000 machines worldwide. In the UAE, for example, one of the leading companies in this field is Taghleef Industries. They are among the largest film producers in the world for food packaging and labeling.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: What is your outlook for the Gulf market?
Patrick Lindemann: We have observed a growing demand for smaller machines. I also felt this during ArabPlast. We just completed a portfolio of heavy-duty machines; we’re now engineering and adapting the concept to make it smaller and more attractive for the film market in the Gulf region. This compact version will be more cost-competitive and will cover widths below 1.6 meters. We’re planning to launch this new machine in March 2017 during the ICE Europe exhibition in Munich.
This is where technology meets ecology. Responding to a call from Australian scientists to save the bees from extinction, Intel miniaturized their Edison technology to create a micro RFID chip specifically designed for these insects. The size of a stamp and weighing just 5.4 mg, the tiny sensor is attached to the animal like a backpack and tracks its movements and behaviors within 30 cm of the hive. It is equipped with an Intel Atom processor, has 1GB of memory and 5GB of storage. This technology allows scientists to study the effects of pollution, pesticides and other environmental factors on the bees in hopes of understanding why numbers have been declining in recent years. The goal is to reverse the trend.
Cainthus, a machine vision company based in Dublin, Ottawa, and San Francisco, has developed a breakthrough system that can identify cows from their faces. Its advanced sensor technology recognizes the unique facial characteristics of each animal. Use could increase efficiency on dairy farms.
The technology can turn visual information into actionable eating habit data. It identifies cows that have stopped feeding and alerts the farm manager for follow-up. The system is suitable for large herds of more than 1000 cows.
David Hunt, former corporate banker and co-founder of Cainthus, said the company is committed to digitizing agricultural practices.
“Today we have 97% accuracy in ID on an individual image, but by sheer weight of analysis our ID accuracy is effectively 100%.”
Camille Rustici is a Video Journalist and the Editor-in-Chief for DirectIndustry e-magazine. She has years of experience in business issues for various media including France 24, Associated Press, Radio France…