If you thought field robotics was a niche ag-industry, think again. A Japanese horticultural firm is developing the world’s first fully automated farm, a large-scale indoor facility expected to churn out 30,000 clean, green lettuce heads a day, while halving labour costs.
With the widespread contamination of horticultural regions following the Fukushima nuclear facility accident, savvy Japanese computer companies have been turning sterile chip factories into controlled indoor growing facilities. Now, the country’s market-leading indoor lettuce-growing firm has stepped further into futuristic farming, taking humans out of the production process altogether.
Kyoto-based Spread started growing vegetables in artificially lit factory facilities in 2006 and has spent the ensuing years perfecting the art of growing lettuces in artificially-lit, ‘environment-controlled’ factory facilities. With its crop shielded from inclement weather, pollution and pests, the company is able to produce “a stable volume of high-quality lettuce throughout the year”, growing a whopping 7.7 million heads of lettuce annually – more than any other artificially-lit vegetable-growing facility in the world.
Keen to be even leaner, cleaner and greener, Spread now plans to develop a vast, fully automated production facility.
In early 2016, the company will begin construction of a futuristic new horticultural complex at Kizugawa, near Kyoto, that will be run entirely by robots. Spread hopes the new facility will be ready for commercial production by mid-2017.
The vege-growing facility of the future?
The 4,800-square-metre (52,000-sq ft) protected-cropping complex will cost an estimated 2 billion yen (A$23 million) to develop. Inside the facility, Spread hopes to automate all six growing stages for lettuces: seeding, germination, raising the seedlings, transplanting them into larger beds, nurturing them to maturity, and harvesting.
Spread claims it has the technology in place to enable all but the initial stages to be managed entirely by robots, with no need for human intervention.
Stacker cranes will be employed to transport the seedlings, handing them to robots engineered to transplant them into larger beds. Other robots will ensure the seedlings have all they need to grow optimally. Once the lettuces are fully grown, different robots will harvest them, delivering them direct to the factory’s automated packaging line.
All this high-tech equipment had to be cleverly designed so the robots handle the plants with sufficient care, which is no simple matter for robotic arms, company spokesperson Kiyoka Morita told Fast Company. "It's challenging to make sure that the machines all run quickly and efficiently without damaging the delicate vegetables," she said.
Automated processes won’t merely handle the lettuces in Spread's new facility; they’ll also be used to optimise growing conditions within the facility, including temperature, humidity, hours of illumination, carbon dioxide levels and water sterilisation.
Currently, the company’s tweaking the technology to perfect an automated seeding system. Humans are still required to ascertain that the lettuce seeds have germinated, but that technological hurdle will likely be surmounted in the not-too-distant future.
Robot farms – cleaner and greener?
Lowering input costs – and hence price and profitability – is not the only good thing about the planned robot farming facility: In line with the company's sustainable, eco-friendly vision, Spread’s new, automated ‘lettuce factory’ is a model for productive, sustainable, environmentally friendly 21st-century horticulture.
The facility has been designed to maximise efficient use of resources. An impressive 98% of the water used to cultivate the lettuces will be recycled; the ultra-efficient lighting system can run on renewable energy.
Cutting-edge “cultivation environment control technology” will be used to regulate and stabilise conditions inside the facility, allowing temperature, light, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and water quality to be monitored 24-7 and if necessary, adjusted, according to calculations made by a computerised control centre.
As Spread’s new complex will be a sealed indoor facility, there will be no need to douse the plants in potentially harmful pesticides and insecticides.
And unlike human farm workers, robots carry no potentially nasty bacteria, viruses or other microbes, meaning the resulting produce will be safer and more hygienic.
“Full automation also reduces the crops’ exposure to human contact during cultivation, further reducing the risk of contamination, and increasing the hygienic levels in the area,” Spread Co's Morita said.
Lower costs + higher productivity = profits
Spread Co., which produces 21,000 head of lettuce a day at its existing farm-factories, expects to turn out a mind-boggling 30,000 lettuces a day from the Kizugawa facility once it’s fully operational. By comparison, an area of the same size on a traditional outdoor farm can grow about 26,000 plants—and can harvest just two to four crops a season.
A$23 million is a hefty capital investment but Spread is confident in its vision, estimating that bringing robots on board will cut its labour costs in half, at the same time increasing productivity and quality control.
By lowering input costs, the shift to full automation should substantially boost Spread’s profitability, upping the chances of a speedy ROI.
Automating its production facility will enable the company to deliver cheaper, safer, sustainably produced, pesticide-free lettuces – and, potentially, all sorts of other vegetables – to health- and eco-conscious consumers.
Already, the company’s factory-grown lettuces – which it assures consumers taste identical to those produced outdoors – are sold in 2,000-odd stores across Japan for prices equivalent to those of lettuces grown on traditional farms. Once the new facility is up and running, however, Spread hopes to pass some of its lower costs on to consumers.
Shipments from the automated lettuce factory are expected to start in mid-2017 in time for the Northern Hemisphere summer. Once it's up and running, the company plans to build similar facilities around the world.