- MetoMotion has raised $1.5 million in a seed funding round to help develop its Greenhouse Robotic Worker, called GRoW, which can detect ripeness in greenhouse tomatoes and harvest them. According to AgFunder News, the Israeli company has not revealed its lead investor, saying only it's a leading Dutch company involved in the greenhouse industry.
- GRoW uses 3D vision systems and machine vision algorithms to find the ripe fruit. It then extends robotic arms to pick them and send them along a conveyor belt to be boxed up using an onboard system. It can also perform other labor-intensive greenhouse jobs such as pruning, pollination, de-leafing and data collection for cultivation analysis.
- MetoMotion CEO Adi Nir told the publication that with this investment, the company can bring its first product to market and offer farmers a solution to widespread shortages of skills and labor.
The GRoW robot is an autonomous vehicle that can be integrated with existing greenhouse infrastructure, MetoMotion's founders said. Since high-tech greenhouses make up about 10% of the total market, one robot per hectare (about 2.5 acres) could mean a first target market of more than $1 billion.
The company stressed the robots could work in greenhouses around the clock and potentially reduce production costs by up to 50%. As greenhouse use expands to meet year-round demand for quality produce, growers are turning to technology to improve efficiency and solve the problem of finding and retaining qualified workers.
Other crop-harvesting robots are in the works, AgFunder News noted. British developers recently introduced one called Hank, which they claim can carefully pick raspberries and strawberries without damaging them. This development could be important in the U.K., where the country's planned departure from the European Union may cut off the flow of fruit pickers and other seasonal workers.
In the U.S., agricultural robot testing has been underway in California and Florida since last year to see whether the method might be way to relieve the labor shortage plaguing the farm sector. Some of the machines can handle pruning, seeding and weeding, while others are designed to pick strawberries and harvest apples and other crops. There are even fleets of little field robots being tested that could be used for labor-intensive duties typically performed by dozens of farm workers.
If the robots function as advertised, it could mean more greenhouses being built here and elsewhere. If the machines are successfully adapted for outdoor use, it could also mean fewer jobs for farm workers.
At the same time, there may be even fewer people available to do those jobs if current policies continue. Many blame the ongoing U.S. labor shortage on federal immigration policies. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 57% of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented.
Robots may be able to solve some of these dilemmas. They may also offer more selective picking and thus less food waste. And if the produce can be grown closer to where people live, the freshness factor would be yet another asset. However, consumers may prefer knowing that an actual human — who could use sight, touch and smell to guarantee ripeness — was involved in the harvesting of their produce rather than a machine.