VANCOUVER—In plant nurseries and greenhouses around B.C., there are workers whose job it is to pick up and place potted plants all day long, causing back injuries and lost time at work that may now be eased with robotic inventions.
In the next two months, things will change for three plant nurseries in Abbotsford and Langley that will be using “big top,” an unmanned robotic vehicle developed and manufactured in Burnaby.
Moving plants is big business, according to Afshin Doust, CEO of Advanced Intelligent Systems, the company that spent millions in developing robotic technology that is aiming to automate the work of moving pots.
Potted plants are moved around manually so they can be spaced apart, aired, repotted, packaged and shipped. The industry employs roughly 97,000 full-time employees in North America and Europe who just move pots, Doust said at Tuesday’s BC Tech Summit. Over $1 million of the funding in developing this technology came in grants from the provincial and federal governments.
The plant nursery companies Doust works with have a tough time finding workers to do this job, he said, because of its physical toll. The workers lose about 18 days a year due to back injuries, he added.
“They come in for one season, next season they don’t want to come back to do the same job. They hurt their back so bad,” he said.
Doust said the goal isn’t to replace human labour with robotics but rather to divert human labour into other areas that are not as intensive. In the past, planting in the ground was a common practice, Doust explained, but when the plant is in a pot, it allows for good soil from anywhere to grow the plants.
“You don’t need to have a proper land to grow in. Because you plant in pots, you can get much better use in space because the pots can be put closer together. As the plants grow, you space them.” Doust said the company plans to rent out the machine and charge per-pot movement for less than 10 cents.
Through an app, the machine can communicate with both the head office and the grower about how many pots have been moved and the size of pots, and signal when the battery is low or when a part needs to be changed.
Culture Bot is another robotics invention that Yahoel Van Essen, founder of Eleos Robotics, hopes will transform the agriculture industry. The pre-commercial, self-driving machine detects and identifies weeds that compete with crops for nutrients, sunlight and moisture, and destroys these crops while creating a 10-acre protection zone
The machine eliminates the need for pesticide spraying, Van Essen said, and can be used in vineyards and berry farms. He’s also working on a robotic arm so the robot can work in greenhouses and on vegetable farms.
Vegetable farming can also be simplified with the help of aeroponics technology, which sprays plants with a nutrient-rich mist and reduces water usage by 90 per cent, said Jeremy Hochuli, lead grower at Aeroroot Urban Farming.
Not only does the system eliminate the need for soil and heavy water usage, but plants can be entirely light-dependent when a lighting system is in place. Problems such as clogging, plumbing and plant disease are also reduced with the technology.
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