Robots with AI Harvest Crops Amid Labor Shortages
Robots equipped with artificial intelligence are being used to harvest crops in Japan, offering promising results amid labor shortages in the agriculture industry. While these robots are currently slower than human harvesters, they offer a potential solution to the shortage of agricultural manpower.
Smart agriculture is gaining traction in Japan, with hopes that artificial intelligence can take on more labor-intensive tasks and help alleviate the severe shortage of workers. Large-scale greenhouse farmers are leading the way by utilizing AI-equipped robots developed by venture businesses, which could potentially revolutionize the future of cultivating and harvesting agricultural products.
One such example is a four-wheeled AI robot that recently roamed through a plastic greenhouse in Hanyu, Saitama Prefecture, gathering only the ripest cucumbers. Developed by start-up Agrist Inc, the robot uses a camera and AI technology to determine the ideal time for harvest. Takeshi Yoshida, head of the Takamiya No Aisai farm, expressed confidence in the robot’s accuracy, stating that it avoids damaging the cucumber stems. As labor becomes increasingly scarce, the farm has high expectations for the robot’s performance.
Agrist has been developing harvesting robots since its establishment in 2019 and Takamiya No Aisai is the first farm to lease one from the company. The robot relies on its camera to capture images of the cucumbers, accurately identifying and cutting off ripe ones before placing them in a case. The robot’s arm positioning is also precise, ensuring minimal damage to the stems. Agrist hopes that other farms will adopt similar systems in the future.
In another case, Inaho Inc, an agricultural venture company in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, has leased an AI-equipped robot to a farm in the Netherlands. This versatile robot can automatically pick cherry tomatoes in bunches or individually, depending on the mechanism employed. By analyzing images, the AI system selects multiple ripe and easy-to-pick tomatoes, which are then harvested by the robot. However, due to the complexity of harvesting tomatoes that bunch around leaves and stems, Inaho has developed a robot that harvests approximately 40% of matured tomatoes at night, leaving the rest for human workers during the daytime.
Inaho aims to export its smart agriculture technology worldwide, starting with the Netherlands, a major player in the agri-food industry. Soya Oyama, the chief operating officer at Inaho, believes that the current harvesting robots are capable of adequately supporting farms facing labor shortages. The company has also developed a robot for asparagus harvesting and plans to begin leasing these machines in fiscal year 2025.
Takanori Fukao, a professor of robotics at the University of Tokyo, envisions an expansion of harvesting robots from greenhouse cultivation to open-field cultivation. He suggests that in order to fully leverage robots’ potential, farms may need to plan the placement of crops in advance. As the industry progresses, robots could become indispensable in addressing labor shortages and streamlining agricultural processes.
These developments in Japan’s agricultural sector highlight the potential of robots with artificial intelligence in addressing labor shortages and revolutionizing farming practices. With the ability to accurately harvest crops and minimize damage, these robots provide a viable solution for a growing challenge faced by farmers worldwide.