In February 2023, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland) hosted an event to bring together a variety of horticulture stakeholders including Canadian scientists, engineers, companies and end-users. The goals were to communicate the outcomes of the Horticultural Automation Cluster funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), to hear from leading international experts on the state of horticultural automation, to create connections and develop opportunities for future research collaboration and to create awareness for the advancement of Canadian automation R&D.
As part of this event, Vineland conducted stakeholder interviews with 26 different companies and organizations involved in horticultural automation in early 2023. These interviews comprised 22 automation companies, three consultants or government representatives and one individual from academia with worldwide representation from Canada (10), the Netherlands (9), the United States (3), Japan, Singapore and Israel. Twenty-two of these companies were directly involved with horticulture for both indoor (12) and outdoor production (4) or working in both environments (6).
The interviews highlighted many challenges faced by this emerging sector and the growth and key learnings gained over the past five years.
Horticultural automation development faces six main challenges.
1. Highly variable and harsh environments are a unique challenge within horticulture:
a. Variability in crop type and variety, production practices, infrastructure and variability over time require more sophisticated equipment.
b. It can be difficult to define an average operation, which leads to the constant need to customize.
2. Balancing the high cost of development with ROI:
a. High variability means large data sets and extensive data collection times are required.
b. Horticulture is a niche industry with each crop and/or growing operation design having unique requirements.
c. There is an underestimated development time due to variability and need for customization. Extensive development time adds to cost.
d. Expensive, robust electronics are needed for harsh environments.
3. Developing connections with growers during the development phase:
a. Many growers are not willing to participate in trials due to potential liabilities, high financial cost and time commitment.
b. Word of mouth and personal relationships are key to developing horticultural connections, making it difficult for new entrants in the market to build trust.
c. Balancing the timing of going to trials to demonstrate efficacy versus commercial readiness.
4. Grower buy-in at commercialization:
a. Cash flow is limited, so technology needs to demonstrate an ROI.
b. Technology is not seen as necessary or doesn’t fit existing infrastructure.
c. There is a lack of access to technical support if technology should fail.
5. Lack of collaboration:
a. There is a limited horticultural knowledge sharing and a lack of public data sets.
b. Established companies may not be willing to share horticultural connections with new entrants thereby blocking market access.
c. There is a lack of inter-operability and modular systems.
d. Grower fatigue due to lack of streamlining trials across different companies.
6. Safety and logistics:
b. Employee security
c. Compliance with industry and government regulations
For the report, link to: https://www.vinelandresearch.com/
Source: Vineland Research & Innovation Centre
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