The Sweeper consortium was invited to hold the first live demonstration of its new sweet pepper harvesting robot at the De Tuindershoek greenhouse horticulture firm in IJsselmuiden. The so-called ‘Sweeper robot’ is the world’s first harvesting robot for sweet peppers to be demonstrated in a commercial greenhouse. An audience of over 40 interested parties watched the harvesting robot pick its first commercially-grown sweet peppers.
The Sweeper robot was designed to harvest sweet peppers in a cultivation system based on single plant stalks in a row, a crop without clusters and in little foliage near the fruits.
In earlier test set-ups in a commercial greenhouse with a V-type double-row cultivation system the harvesting robot achieved a harvesting percentage of 62%. Based on these test results, the Sweeper consortium expects to be able to bring the commercial sweet pepper harvesting robot to the market in about four or five years.
Further research required
Until then, further research will be needed to enable the robots to work faster and achieve a higher success percentage. Additionally, commercially viable cultivation systems must be developed that are more suitable to the robotic harvesting of crops. The test and research results are not only suitable for the automatic harvesting of sweet peppers; the data can also be used to robotise the harvesting of other crops.
International research partnership
Sweeper is a partnership between Wageningen University & Research (WUR), sweet pepper farm De Tuindershoek BV, the Umea University in Sweden, the Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the Research Station for Vegetable Cultivation and Bogaerts Greenhouse Logistics in Belgium. The study receives financial support from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and is also funded by the Dutch Horticulture and Propagation Materials Top Sector.
Successor of CROPS
The Sweeper robot is the successor of CROPS (Clever Robots for Crops), an EU project launched by WUR, in which WUR and the other participants developed a robot that can make a distinction between a sweet pepper plant’s fruit, leaves, stalks and main stems. As a result, the robot can harvest sweet peppers without damaging the fruit, leaves, stalks or stems.
Source and photo: www.sweeper-robot.eu. Video: Wageningen UR greenhouse horticulture.
A consortium of three companies, Ecoation, Metazet FormFlex and Micothon, has launched a new robot for scouting plants in greenhouses.
Revolutionary patented sensors register plant diseases and plant production factors before human eyes can discover them. The data generated is automatically displayed on a greenhouse map. This finally makes it possible to steer and protect the plants on an almost individual level, leading to minimal need for crop protection combined with maximum production of “always healthy plants”.
The robot registers the diseases and development of the plants in greenhouses with technology based on the patented Saber sensor, which detects pests, diseases and deficiencies at an early stage. It can also be equipped with cameras, a gyro sensor and sensors for RH%, temperature, CO2, crop top temperature and a PAR sensor, resulting in almost total plant control.
Stand number: 12.107
Thanks to the unique pull wire installation robot, working at great heights and installation faults are no longer an issue.
Nowadays no greenhouse is built without a screen cloth. More and more greenhouses have double or triple screens for energy saving, sun shading, blacking out or reducing light emissions. Thanks to the innovative slip-in systems, installing screens is already much safer and easier than it was ten years ago.
Problem solving robot
On the other hand, a lot of dangerous work is still being done at heights of 6 or 7 metres. For every hectare of greenhouse, 2,000 metres of pull wire have to be installed. Installing pull wires is normally done manually, and as the wires have to be installed between thousands of upper and lower polyester wires, installation faults are easily made. With the innovative robot from Van der Valk Horti Systems, these problems are solved.
Stand number: 12.223
The ISO Robot Plug Planting Machine is a machine with robot arms that can plant small plants in the ground from a plug tray. This method of planting plugs in the ground with robot arms is completely unique anywhere in the world.
The current machine, which is specially designed for Lisianthus plants, can handle 6,000 plants per robot arm, and the maximum capacity can be increased to 18,000 plants per hour with a third arm. It can all be operated by one person. Up to now, the plants have been planted out by hand. With the humidity and warmth in the greenhouse needed to grow Lisianthus, this is a very tough, labour-intensive job. The machine is designed to enable the operator to control the plants as they are being planted.
Stand number: 11.307
The new smart packing line from WPS consists of five individual modules, all members of the SmartStaff robot family. Modules can be combined based on the grower’s specific needs.
Smart Picking is designed especially for companies with a capacity of more than 2,500 plants per hour. It picks up plants from containers and places them in plant carriers on conveyor belts. The labelling module has a capacity of more than 2,000 plants per hour. Special feature: pots are labelled with in-line printing directly from the OCS software. The third module is for destacking trays and works with a wide range of trays which can all be learned by the OCS software.
Placing plants without damaging them is the speciality of Smart Placing. It has a capacity of more than 1,500 plants per hour. Finally, Smart Wrapping (> 200 trays per hour) wraps trays filled with plants. This module reduces the amount of plastic used in the plant packing process.
Stand number: 11.201
In the European SWEEPER project, efforts are being made to create a sweet pepper harvesting robot. Part of this project is the development of fruit and obstacle recognition based on colour and depth images.
For this purpose, an artificial 3D model of a pepper crop was recently produced based on plant measurements in the greenhouse, including all the distributions of angles and geometry. This digital model can be used to grow random, unique digital plants in a simulated greenhouse environment. Once the digital crop is created, synthetic colour and depth images can be rendered on a supercomputer and used as training material for artificial intelligent learning systems. This enables us to localise parts of the plants such as the fruits, leaves and stems from the robot’s perspective.
The recognised parts of stems can then be used to map out obstacles for the robot to avoid during harvesting. Previous research has shown that the angle of approach during harvesting is very important in achieving a high harvesting percentage.
Constant innovation is the key to Metrolina Greenhouses becoming one of the largest and most successful greenhouse growers in the USA. For over four decades the family-run enterprise has continued to invest in technology including robotics, data analysis and logistics. It produces around 700 species and is currently laying the foundations for further expansion to keep up with market demand.
The 68 ha of glasshouses in Huntersville and the 70 ha for outdoor cultivation in York, North Carolina, are a far cry from the 1860 m2 that Tom and Vickie van Wingerden bought in 1972. With 5,000 dollars in their pockets the Dutch couple had just emigrated from the Netherlands to start their American Dream. Today the business is run by their four sons and has a turnover of over 200 million dollars. It produces 110 million seedling and cutting plugs per year which in turn produce 7 million hardy chrysanthemums; 6 million summer annuals; 5 million hanging baskets; 3 million poinsettias; 1.8 million bedding plant trays and 11 million perennials. And each year 5% of sales are made up of new items.
But the company is not resting on its laurels. Tom van Wingerden’s motto was ‘the absence of innovation means stagnation’ and with that front of mind the family continually invests to improve all greenhouse processes. “In our newer greenhouses we have rolling tables and benches, cranes and spacing machines doing all the work,” says Thomas van Wingerden, one of the brothers with responsibility for operations. “Trays are placed on the production line and are not touched by human hands until they are put on a shipping cart. In some of the older greenhouses, someone has to push the tables around but no one has to touch the plants,” he says. The company employs around 600 full time hourly people, 150 salary and 750 to 1000 seasonal staff.
Metrolina is without doubt extremely modern: Technology is king and the brothers collaborate with highly innovative suppliers from across the globe. But with their Dutch roots it goes without saying that they acquire much knowledge and expertise from the Netherlands. They recently invested in a new sticking machine which was manufactured for them by the ISO Group. “We wanted a machine for difficult varieties such as calibrachoa and verbena and for very small cuttings that are difficult to stick by hand,” says Thomas van Wingerden. The ISO Group, of the Netherlands, had such a machine for chrysanthemum cuttings which it was able to develop further. “The machine does a much better job than we can do manually because all the cutting are stuck uniformly so we have a much better success rate.”
Ahead of the game
Trying something new is part of the family’s philosophy. “We always want to be ahead of the game so if there is something better out there we want to have it.” That’s why they are currently replacing about 12 ha of shade screens with Svensson Harmony diffuse screens which should be in place by 1 February. “We’d seen the new screens at shows and after discussing it with our growers we felt they would be worth trying in our lower-light greenhouses. They should give better light than the Solaro 50% screens, which have an open structure to enhance ventilation and offer 50% shade. These are currently installed on 60 ha and double up as energy curtains which has led to significant savings,” says Van Wingerden. “We have also installed blackout curtains on 40 ha of glasshouses. These not only block out the light they are used for insulation too.”
The summers in Huntersville are humid and temperatures range from 32ºC, down to 15 to 21ºC. The winters, however, can be cold. Average winter temperatures range from the 4-7°C). The greenhouses in Huntersville are heated by four 8 MW woodchip boilers which were installed about seven years ago when natural gas was expensive. Although the gas prices have dropped, the woodchips, which come from a 50 mile radius, still make good business sense, he says. “They are still cheaper than gas and they are renewable so it’s better for the environment.” About 60 ha of the greenhouses have hot water pipe floor heating that has a capacity for some 19 million litres.
While 6 ha of greenhouses are Venlo types with fan and pad cooling the majority are MX open roof greenhouses. As new houses have been added over the years they have become taller, the highest being 6.7 meters, to accommodate the robotic cranes that lift and move the trays of plants and the sprayer crane, another innovation that has improved efficiency. “The electrostatic sprayers put an electric charge on the chemical particle so that it sticks on the underside of the leaf where the bugs tend to hide. It is much more efficient: We use at least 50% less chemical product than previously but get the same coverage.”
Ozone clean water
About 48 ha have ebb and flood floors and the water is recycled in a closed system. The other 20 ha have a traditional system and the water returns to ponds for recycling. These ponds cover some 10 ha which collect 15 million litres of water for every inch of rainfall, says Van Wingerden. “We get about 45 inches of rain per year so we have plenty of water and we’ve not suffered any water shortages over the past ten years.” That’s saying something because the Huntersville facility consumes a staggering 5.7 million litres of water per day.
All the water is filtered and for the last three years has been sanitised using ozone. “We originally filtered to 150 microns and step by step reduced this to a finer filtration of 5 microns. The next step was ozone,” he says. It made such a positive difference that the system is being upgraded and will be used more widely. “Our plants are much healthier with better root systems which has allowed us to reduce the crop cycle. For example, we have been able to reduce the production time for poinsettias by four weeks and spring crops by two weeks. Although general improvements in growing techniques might have helped we certainly feel that the cleaner water has been largely responsible,” he says.
This typifies Metrolina’s philosophy of wanting to do better every day. It’s a strategy that is extremely reliant on data. “We record and analyse everything,” says Van Wingerden. “We employ at least 15 analysts who analyze everything going on in the greenhouse and connect it via the inventory management system to data from the stores. We have to make sure that all the numbers adds up. Our in-house database is updating information from every crop all the time. We use this information to speed up or slow down crops if we notice that plants are ahead or behind schedule. We can create about 50 different climates and with the additional use of artificial lighting we can ensure that crops hit their schedule dates.”
The database platform connects production planning, finance, replenishment and inventory management right through to shipping. They supplies three customers: Lowes (359 stores), Walmart (881 stores) and HomeDepot (150 stores, perennials only). The stores provide daily sales numbers so they knows which items are selling well. “Our analysts then decide what to ship to which stores the next day, a system that also requires an extremely innovative logistical solution, including 160 of our own trucks. Not only are we a producer of plants we also take care of the end-to- end process right up to sales to remove the hassle for our buyers.”
Keeping pace with demand
New greenhouses continue to be built. “Our customers are opening more and more new stores and growing by 2% per year. We need 4 acres extra per year just to keep up with the growth of their stores so we have just started to build an additional 16 ha of glasshouses at Huntersville. These will be the MX open roof types and will be fully automated. This will take about eight years to complete but we expect to have the first crops available in two years. By then we should have completed all the concrete floors which we can use for production. The aim is to build 4 ha of greenhouses each year afterwards until it is complete.” The aim is to have a turnover of 250 million dollars by 2025.
The philosophy held by US greenhouse giant, Metrolina Greenhouses, is to perform a little better each day. It has achieved this over the last 40 years by investing in innovation. Most of its 68 ha of glasshouses are fully automated so that human hands only touch the trays of plants when they placed in the shipping truck.
Text: Helen Armstrong. Images: Ludvig Svensson and Metrolina Greenhouses
Chances are big that the Priva Deleafing Robot will be the winner of the 2016 GreenTech Innovation Award. It is the first robot in the world today to offer an economically viable alternative for the manual removal of leaves in tomato plants.
Crop handling comprises a significant chunk of the labour costs associated with the cultivation of crops such tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers. Robots offer an interesting perspective to reducing these costs and enhancing the manageability and predictability of business operations. In collaboration with a group of Dutch tomato growers, Priva has developed a robot that removes leaves from tomato plants completely independently and in an economically viable manner. It is always difficult to find workers for this labour-intensive and unpleasant task.
Many demonstration projects have been launched in the past few decades. However, none of these have led to economically viable products. This can generally be attributed to the fact that the performance exhibited by robots was never able to stand up to that of human workers in terms of speed and quality. A great deal of attention has been given to practical applicability in the development of this robot. The close involvement of a large group of growers has proven to be essential: only they can properly assess the usefulness of the robot.
The robot must be able to identify plants and leaves, for which cameras and smart calculation technology (vision technology) are deployed. Because no two plants are identical and the lighting conditions under which the robot operates is subject to constant change, state-of-the-art vision technology was developed. When the robot identifies a leaf, it removes it with a cutting module mounted onto its arm. This cutter must be as compact as possible to allow it to easily move through the plants, and additionally designed to effectively withstand contamination and the damaging effects of the acidic juices exuded by the tomato plant.
‘Thanks to the application of vision technology, the robot can quickly and accurately identify the position of the leaves and its speed of operation is currently at an economically viable level,’ confirms Ronald Zeelen, Manager for Innovation & Research at Priva. Of course, the robot can’t work at the same speed of an experienced human, but compensates this by being able to work 24 hours a day.
The second GreenTech Innovation Award for the most innovative product or solution will be presented during the opening of the GreenTech in Amsterdam on 14 June 2016. Category awards will be presented in three categories: production, equipment and automation solutions. One of these three winners will be chosen overall winner.
Click here for a list of all nominees for the 2016 GreenTech Innovation Award.
Yuri van Geest wrote the bestseller Exponential Organisations together with Salim Ismail and Mike Malone, in which they expose the power of fast-growing organisations like Uber, Airbnb and Netflix. He will be the keynote speaker on the theme ‘the power to change’ at the Westland Event on 15 October. ‘The Netherlands will have to embrace new technology within the next five years, if we aim to remain on the driver’s seat in the global food producing industry.’
Yuri van Geest is a specialist in ‘singularity’ and a key figure behind Singularity University Nederland, which will be opening in Eindhoven this December with strong ties to Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Delft and Nijmegen.
Can you explain your personal interest in horticulture?
‘Food is one of the topics I’m currently rather engrossed in. I have also entered into some partnerships in the horticulture sector; so of course, I take an avid interest in it.’ Van Geest has joined forces with the consultancy firm Hillenraad Partners to set up a five-day training course for entrepreneurs in the horticulture sector, in which they aim to show the participants the many opportunities offered by exponential organisation.
How do you retain a competitive edge in a world in which everything is open source?
Can you briefly explain what exponential organisation is?
‘Every business can become an exponential organisation, from a start-up to a family business that’s been around for a century and a half. Basically, it comes down to the way in which the building blocks of a business are organised. A different organisation, a different structure, culture, strategy and critical performance indicators. New technology, such as nanotechnology, 3D printing and robotics - and additionally communities and big data - has to become engrained, as it were, into the DNA of an organisation. As if the organisation is being turned inside out. Business enterprises are doing less and less independently and are outsourcing expertise and technology on an increasingly larger scale. One of the core questions of the book is: how do you retain control in a world where you have less personal property such as talent, personal and resources? How do you retain a competitive edge in a world in which everything is open source? A business enterprise that is capable of applying this organisational change successfully will be able to perform ten times better and faster than one that maintains a linear growth curve. Exponentially. We have divided this process into four steps, which we are implementing at a global scale at companies such as Procter & Gamble and Huawei.’
What will you be speaking about at the Westland Event?
‘You may not be aware of it completely, but the world has entered into a slipstream of technological advancement. Within five to ten years everything will be controlled by software. Biology and technology are becoming more and more closely intertwined. Food is also becoming software. This means that the food producing industry, including the horticulture sector, will become a software industry. Currently, there are numerous developments in the food producing industry that are founded on technology. Take 3D printed food, for example. You can already get several ingredients in a 3D print. In the future we will be able to print out entire hors d’oeuvres, more hygienically and perhaps even tastier than they could be made by a good restaurant. Or consider nano refrigerators with advanced water, nutrient and LED lighting systems, in which people can grow their own food from seeds. Haier, in collaboration with Syngenta (among others) is already taking serious steps in this direction. In just a few years it will be completely normal to walk into a gym, have your DNA or neuroprofile read and be given a personalised shake containing all the nutrients you need at that moment.’
An essential first step is to make leadership facilitating, instead of top-down.
What can horticulturists learn from exponential organisations?
‘Curiosity, creativity. To dare to open all the blinds, to listen to young employees in particular, to embrace new technology. An essential first step is to make leadership facilitating, instead of top-down. People are becoming increasingly older while the world population is continuously growing. Food production worldwide will have to be increased twofold, perhaps even threefold. The way things are going right now, that would be impossible. If we aim to achieve this, we will need technology based on software. The Netherlands will have to embrace new technology within the next five years, if we aim to remain on the driver’s seat in the global food production industry. Horticulturists can also learn not to assume that everything is the truth. To understand that what you are currently thinking and consider to be true is an assumption. The formula behind the coffee shop we’re sitting in right now is functioning perfectly. At present, it has a functional value. However, developments are following upon one another at an accelerated pace. How long will this coffee shop be able to function as its functioning today? If you do not constantly doubt your assumptions and convictions, are no longer curious, your concept or business will have become obsolete before you know it.’
What is your vision of the future of the Dutch horticulture sector?
‘I feel rather optimistic about it, but we will have to take action now. The pace of innovation is much higher in China and the Silicon Valley. They are also growing food, which is coming our way. Like I said: food is software. The horticulture sector - and even broader, the food producing industry - will have to inject itself with new technology to retain its relevance. A business cannot pick up all this new technology on its own, but it can if it joins forces with others as a group. Together with government agencies, for example, or market parties. We in the Netherlands excel in agriculture and food production. At Singularity University Nederland, which is to become a think-tank for Western Europe, AgriFood will be one of our priority subjects. We could achieve tremendous steps in AgriFood. After all, the Netherlands already have many start-ups and knowledge centres in that field.’
The pace of innovation is much higher in China and the Silicon Valley. They are also growing food, which is coming our way.
Why would you advise students to keep a close eye on the horticulture sector?
‘Horticulture is exciting, because of the many opportunities for growth. As I mentioned before, a myriad of new technologies such as biotechnology, nano technology, robotics, drones and 3D printing are all converging in the horticulture sector. I would advise students to invest in all the information currently available online, in addition to what they’re learning at school. Almost everything you want to know and learn is already available on the internet via open source software. You could watch TED talks, or read blogs and news items on websites such as Edge.org, SingularityHUB or MIT Technology review. I learn something new every day through all this media. This is one of the reasons I prefer to travel by train. You can’t read while driving a car, after all. My advice: you have to get going if you want to participate in today’s changing world.’
The Westland Event will be held on Thursday, 15 October 2015, from 3 to 8 pm. Watch the event in livestream on HortiValley.nl (Dutch spoken). Marco van Zijverden, CEO of the Dutch Flower Group, will be introducing Yuri van Geest at 6.45 pm. View the full programme of the Westland Event.
Sweeper was launched at the beginning of 2015. The goal of this project is to develop a harvesting robot for sweet peppers. The robot is being tested at De Tuindershoek, a sweet pepper farm in IJsselmuiden run by two brothers, André en Paul Kaashoek.
What made you decide to join in the development of Sweeper?
‘As a member of the Dutch National Sweet Pepper Committee I was involved in Crops, the predecessor of Sweeper. As Sweeper had to be tested in practice, we proposed our farm as a testing ground. Also, if you are among the first to collaborate on projects like these, you will be able to benefit from innovation grants. That doesn’t mean that funding is our only incentive: all six partners in the project are expected to put a lot of effort into the project.’
What is being researched at your farm?
‘The prototype should be ready in February 2018; we are currently still looking into a number of different aspects. One of these was testing several types of cameras. The goal was to choose the best camera, while also exploring the possibilities of what a camera can capture in terms of data. It may even lead to us cultivating another variety to accommodate the research, for example. That would be quite a drastic change, but like I said, we have very high standards in terms of what we want to accomplish with this project.’
‘Labour is currently our biggest cost item. A robot would help us achieve tremendous savings in this.’
What advantages would a robot have for your farm?
‘Our biggest cost item is labour, for harvesting the green peppers. A robot would help us achieve tremendous savings in this. We would also need fewer seasonal workers. On the other hand, we would need more technical staff for maintenance on the robots. That would mean a big change in the composition of our workforce. Of course, we would have to make sure that the venture is economically viable: a robot has to give you something extra.’
Aren’t you apprehensive about making this investment; by being the first to test a harvesting robot?
‘Nobody is forcing us to join in, or adapt our greenhouses. This is our very own decision. And a decision we will continue to support.’
Are you enjoying your contribution to the development of a robot?
‘Absolutely. It is also very exciting and quite challenging at times.’
Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Mario van Vliet. Photo: Mario Bentvelsen.