Greenhouse Product News

Big Grower November 2021

The business magazine for commercial growers

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4 NOVEMBER 2021 COVER STO RY taken place to grow that crop is converted into a lost opportunity. Being able to incorporate a harvesting robot as a supplement to the people working in the greenhouse guarantees the harvest is completed in a timely manner." Utilizing robots can free up workers to focus on other aspects of crop care. "With crop care, there is so much more that can be done to ensure the plants grow at an optimal level," Lessing says. "If people aren't harvesting they can be pruning the plants. They're making sure the right number of flowers is on a truss, which has a monumental impact on what is the final outcome of the harvest. The harvesting robot also frees up time for workers to lower the plant canopy. The gentler the canopy is lowered, the less heads that are broken on the vines as well as fewer fruits ending up on the floor due to rough handling. The more finessed plant care with the people that we have means better crop outcomes and more quality product." One of the biggest advantages of incorporating robots into its production facilities is the data the robots will collect as they harvest. The information collected by the robots will enable AppHarvest employees to evaluate crop health, precisely predict yield and optimize overall operations of the facility. "When a fruit is harvested we have an opportunity to measure the outcome of an experiment," Lessing says. "Every variable that is changed in lighting, temperature and fertigation is observed the moment we bring in the harvest. Having robots in the greenhouse allows us to collect a lot more data and allows us to close the loop and understand how to do better the next time so that we can keep driving up quality and yield." IMPROVING ROBOT TECHNOLOGY AppHarvest is developing a robot strategy with the data being collected by the harvesting robots. "We focus heavily on advancing our computer vision capabilities," Lessing says. "We've built our own custom fully convolutional neural networks and run complex analyses at the edge of the robot. We're doing a lot of computer vision models, including this is a tomato, this one is ripe or this is a leaf." After acquiring this information and the contents of the environment, they can then make judgment calls on how to best harvest a sequence of fruits. Those types of strategy decisions, Lessing says, are the core of modern dexterous robotic techniques. "Worldwide there's over $100 billion worth of hand harvesting of fruits, both CEA and field production. Writing the fundamental software that allows a robot to strategize the way humans move their hands in an environment to do sequential complex dexterous actions is a tremendous accomplishment." The Virgo harvesting robot has also been used on strawberries and cucumbers. It is the same robot with a slightly different picking hand. A large percentage of what happens with harvesting a berry crop is very similar to the issues that have to be managed with a tomato crop. Josh Lessing, chief technology officer at AppHarvest, says one of the biggest reasons to incorporate robots into controlled environment production operations is resilience. AppHarvest is expected to harvest about 40 million pounds of tomatoes annually from its new 60-acre greenhouse operation in Morehead, Kentucky. Robots can free up workers to focus on other aspects of a tomato crop, including pruning and lowering the plant canopy to reduce damage to the vines.

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