Five years ago, advancements in automation in horticulture were mostly a dream.
But so were the likes of university assignments that write themselves, hit songs performed by computers and virtual fitness instruction from your home treadmill.
Technology continues to find new niches, right across the board. And that presents a huge opportunity for growers and processors who take action now and capitalize on the potential, according to a new report from the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.
Earlier this year, the centre brought together 26 horticulture stakeholders, including nine from The Netherlands and three from the U.S., to discuss the state of horticultural automation, to create connections and develop opportunities for future research collaboration.
Their goal was to understand challenges and opportunities facing automation, how the companies see the best opportunities and how they can be connected to enhance impact for the sector.
Most of them and the 22 companies they represent were not even in business five years ago. They’re seeing the present and the future through a new lens, including the need to collaborate to validate automation technology. That’s a key theme that arose during discussions.
“Validation is about building trust for your technology, demonstrating not only its functionality but also its usefulness and reliability while providing a return on investment,” according to the Vineland report, which was issued in March 2023.
The report says technology validation will advance with trials at commercial facilities or through workshops and product demonstrations. The concept of building collaborative pre-commercial testing sites across different regions and countries was strongly supported by participants and provides a pathway to resource- and knowledge sharing to increase collaboration.
“Growers can then see [automation technology] for themselves to ensure it meets their expectations before investing financially and operationally,” according to the report.
However, many industry professionals did not feel new technology development was the domain of conventional research institutions. Instead, they said, such institutions should instead focus on optimizing technology and developing tools such as data management software and public data sets to streamline efforts.
Besides technology validation and product demonstrations, the participants cited these research needs:
-Horticulture adaptation to fit automation
-Sector scans of available technologies and top needs for different crops
-Specific applications such as automated de-leafing, automated crop-lowering
The participants noted the high cost of research overall as a major impediment to the sector, with its inherent challenges. For example, high variability among crops or growing regions means large data sets and extensive data collection times are required. Some have harsh environments, requiring expensive, robust electronics.
But all challenges aren’t confined to the lab.
Participants cited problems connecting with growers during automation technology development. They said many growers are not willing to participate in trials due to potential liabilities, high financial cost and time commitment. As well, they noted how horticultural industry connections – and indeed, those throughout the agri-food sector -- are made by word of mouth and personal relationships.
“That makes it difficult for new entrants in the market to build trust,” according to the report.
Finally, they said technology is sometimes not seen as necessary. Nonetheless, they seem determined to stake a place in the sector.
“As the sector matures, an opportunity exists to understand and address challenges and make a strategic and coordinated effort for the next five years and beyond,” the report concludes. “The time is ideal to increase collaboration, data sharing and identify business and partnership models for successful validation and implementation of automation technologies in supporting the horticultural sector.”