One of Harvest Automation’s new nursery bots can work 10 hours a day for $40—a lot less than even an illegal worker might get for the same job. And, as an employer, you have no issues with sickness, or slacking-off, or immigration checks; and you don’t need to provide breaks, or restrooms. The bot just gets on with it, slowly moving pots from one area to another, no back-chat, no nonsense.
CEO John Kawola says the automation of the nursery is inevitable, because robots are cheaper, and operators can no longer find humans for the work. "Ten years ago, it was pretty easy to secure that labor. But things like 9/11 have made migration across borders more difficult, and in the last few years, depending on the state, there has been increasing scrutiny in employing illegal workers. It’s a huge business risk for these companies, and so they are looking for a technology solution that alleviates that."
Four companies have bought the bots since they were released last year; about 30 are now operating. They cost $30,000 each, but are designed to run for at least five years (10,000 hours). And Kawola says they are easy to program. The operator sets up an area between reflective tape laid on the ground, chooses between about five parameters on the user interface—the length of the bed, spacing, and so on—and just points the bot to where it needs to go.
"The customers say they are very reliable, and that they are solving a need. They are using it for certain types of operation they didn’t do before, like additional spacing operations they wouldn’t have time for," Kawola says.
Kawola says nursery owners will typically move their pots (rose bushes, say) four to eight times a year—to give them space to grow, or to bring them together for easier watering. He assures us that the robots, which weigh about 80 pounds and stand two feet tall, don’t get in the way. They are designed to work among humans, and will stop if you come into their path. "There are a bunch of failsafes in them, and given the size, we think the risk of injury is very low."
Harvest Automation doesn’t want to stop with pot-moving: future designs will take care of trimming and pruning, grading of plants, and application of chemicals.
"There is a huge environmental benefit to not spraying large quantities right across the field, especially when the plants are far apart. It means 75% of the chemicals just go into the ground."
He also expects bots to be used in large-scale farms. "There’s already a lot of automation in harvesting and planting. But there’s a need for higher resolution. If you can go up and down the rows, you can grade a plant on a scale of 1 to 5. Farmers can then make more accurate decisions about water and chemicals. You can’t do that with a tractor."