Robocrops @ Rolf van Koppen fotografie
Author profile picture

Autonomous harvesting is drawing closer. Computer vision techniques, sensors and AI are getting better at monitoring and predicting crop growth, and robots are increasingly capable of more accurately harvesting strawberries or tomatoes. So the future is just around the corner, as was evident during RoboCrops, the annual international robotics event held at the World Horti Center. A number of companies presented solutions in the field of disease detection, harvest predictions and automatic harvesting, to name a few.

The merits of these new solutions are clear. They make growers less dependent on the most troublesome aspects for horticulture companies, i.e.: time and ‘green fingers’ expertise. For example, Dirk Aleven, CEO of Foodventures, told me that growers spend a very large portion of their time inspecting crops. “They are undoubtedly good growers,” Aleven told us. “But couldn’t we spend that time more efficiently? Robots can do that work perfectly well at night. That takes less time and gives better results. Making measurements objectively, not subjectively,” according to Aleven.

RoboCrops also demonstrated that when it comes to robotization and digitalization, it’s not just a matter of choosing the right technology. Because even in the future, horticulture will still need well-trained people. After all, not all work is best left to AI and robots. Moreover – and if things go as they should, a real human being will still be at the top of the pecking order. This even led to the question during RoboCrops: “Are robots entitled to any employee fringe benefits? Or, to put it in other words: humans and machines have to work together, and that does require some effort from both parties.

Data, data, data

RoboCrops is an initiative of InnovationQuarter, FME, World Horti Center (WHC), and other organizations, and aims to bring together the ecosystem that surrounds robotization. To achieve this, RoboCrops regularly organizes knowledge sessions. Which is why they have now organized a large-scale event at the World Horti Center. The first day was all about Today: what is currently possible? Day two was about Tomorrow: where are we heading?

As an example, during the Today program, Frans-Peter Dechering of Corvus Drones was able to show that his orange drones can carry out crop inspections: they photograph the crop, then the photos are used for analysis. This kind of solution gives the grower and his/her computer more accurate data. Ronald Hoek of Blue Radix explained how an algorithm helps to get the right information from that data, and Edwin van Laerhoven of Certhon-Denso explained how robots can make use of data to harvest crops.

Day 1 was consequently mainly dedicated to data. However, Peter Jens, Director of Strategic Alliances at Koppert Biological Systems, warned visitors to RoboCrops: Data is not the Holy Grail. This is because data tells us something about the past, not about the future. When a new strain of virus emerges, you cannot know what effect it will have; it can potentially destroy your entire crop. But Jens was also clear: Data does help horticulture to advance.

Making good arrangements

In the future, current emerging techniques will have been further developed. Growers will be able to buy the right kind of solutions at the market, so to speak, and use them as they see fit. But things are not that simple, said Danny Hetharia of Sobolt during his presentation about AI. He recommended that entrepreneurs work with parties who really understand your work and challenges, and who are themselves willing to take risks. The application of AI is often more complex than what many providers promise. “It is crucial that you are on the same side of the negotiating table.”

According to cyber expert Peter Zinn, entrepreneurs would also be wise to make good agreements with suppliers about digital security. This is under increasing threat. Not only because hackers are very adept at thinking outside the box – they are constantly coming up with new ways to infiltrate systems and steal data. Another reason is that ownership and accessibility of data is becoming more and more complex. Tractor manufacturer John Deere, for example, owns the data that tractors generate during their work. Is that what a business owner would want? Digital security should therefore be one of the first development steps in AI, Zinn points out.

Does a robot have any rights?

During day 2, special attention was paid to labor and ethics. Researcher Gerben Splinter of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) told us about his research into the relationship between people and machines in a horticultural company. Employees need to learn how to work with robots. For example, they need to learn new skills, or even be given new jobs to do. According to Splinter, the horticultural sector should devote attention to this now.

However, more transitions are needed. For one thing, there is the issue of social interaction between employees. At present, harvesters walk around the greenhouse together with their colleagues. The nature of their work will undergo significant changes if they are soon only allowed to stand in one place, alongside a robot. And will robots require the same kind of work environment as humans?

Simone van der Burg – Robocrops © Rolf van Koppen Photography

Simone van der Burg of ELSA Labs had even more questions, especially in the realm of ethics. Interestingly enough, there is a great deal of discussion worldwide about what robots could mean for our future: ‘Will people soon be enslaved by machines? Such questions are noticeably not being asked when it comes to robotization in greenhouse horticulture. While robots will definitely help secure the international food supply in the future.

This is why developers themselves should pay attention to the ethical aspects of working with a robot. Such as: Is a robot responsible for mistakes that are made? Does a robot have any rights? And can you hold a robot accountable for sustainability-related issues?

Smart people

Therefore, robotization is for the most part the work of humans. That was the conclusion drawn by the day’s chair Jim Stolze (born and bred in horticulture, now a tech entrepreneur) at the end of the RoboCrops event. In order to do this, horticulture needs smart people. And there were plenty of those around during the two-day event, thanks in part to the collaboration with the talent program HortiHeroes.

Something I stressed as an organizer on behalf of InnovationQuarter is that the aim of RoboCrops is to bring those people together. Thanks to corona, it took two years for this event to finally go ahead. “But in the meantime, we have not been sitting still. There were lots of digital sessions, among other things. However, you do notice that these kinds of get-togethers are really important for an ecosystem.”

The ecosystem

The RoboCrops platform facilitates a global community of cutting-edge greenhouse horticulturalists and high-tech companies that are working together on solutions to lead the horticultural industry into a new era. You can read more about the background of the community RoboCrops is building on this page. The networking activities of RoboCrops are co-financed by the MIT grant scheme for strengthening TKI SMEs through the HTSM Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Katleen Gabriels, PG Kroeger, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer, Maarten van Andel and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.