Millions of products are grown in the horticulture industry, of which none resembles the other. Not only that, growers tend to harvest their crops at varying stages of ripeness. These are difficult circumstances for the development of a robot, confirms Erik Wekking, sales manager of Irmato, a firm that develops a lot of robots for horticultural applications. ‘It is nevertheless a fact that robots will be making their breakthrough soon.’

What made you decide to produce robots?

‘Irmato took over Jentjes Machinetechniek in 2013. This firm had been been approached at the end of the nineties by a number of growers of potted roses to develop a robot to clip cuttings. At that time, Jentjes was developing robots for industrial applications. The difference between the manufacturing and the horticulture industry is that in the manufacturing industry your products are identical; from the first to the millionth. That’s completely different in horticulture. No two cuttings are alike. Additionally, human intellect plays a big part. The eyes tell the hands what to do.’

Is that what is preventing the large-scale introduction of robots in horticulture?

‘That is part of the reason. In horticulture there are lots of different crops, which are additionally grown according to a vast number of different methods; and within this vast variety of crops types there are also many different varieties. This requires specific robot applications with corresponding new software for such tasks as identifying a flower or fruit, determining where to make a cut, or identifying ripeness. Ripeness is, however, a subjective quality. Growers decide when to harvest their fruits and vegetables according to market demands. Another factor that is complex for a robot is colour. Imagine how difficult it is for a robot to identify a green sweet pepper amidst all the green foliage of a row of sweet pepper plants! Additionally, the horticulture industry produces a lot of seasonal products. It’s much easier to earn back an investment on a product that can be sold all year round.’

What is needed for robots to become a success in horticulture?

‘First of all, it would be helpful if growers would adapt their cultivation methods. They could enable robots to approach both sides of a plant, for instance. Breeding also plays a big part in this: the plants themselves could be adapted to make them easier to be harvested by a robot. All of this is would involve some drastic changes. It is a question of embracing an industrial way of thinking. The cultivation of decorative plants, as well as the cultivation of vegetables, has achieved considerable progress in this. However, growers will not change their cultivation methods until the benefits of robot technology have been proved. The development of technology and new cultivation methods will have to go hand in hand.’

Will this breakthrough ever occur?

‘Of course. The drop in government funding and the economic crisis threw quite a spanner in the spokes: growers no longer received grants. There are, however, some demonstrable successes, like the robots that clip rose cuttings that have been around since 2002. And in 2008 we were able to demonstrate that it was possible to automatically harvest cut roses, but at that point the country was on the verge of economic collapse. Growers stopped receiving funding for the development of initiatives like that.

‘We should also join forces on a representative scale to ensure that testing can be carried out in practice before widely applying automation. Pilot projects such as the Sweeper project should be facilitated to curb disappointment among the first users of the ensuing products and who have made projects like this possible. These days, a grower with a good business case has a good chance of getting private or government funding. At the same time, robotics are becoming less expensive and new technology is constantly being developed. It is inevitable that there is a breakthrough ahead with respect to robots.’

Text: van Vliet | Photo: Mario Bentvelsen.

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