A Japanese company is to open the world’s first “robot farm”, as agriculture joins other sectors of the economy in attempting to fill labour shortages created by the country’s rapidly aging population.
Spread, a vegetable producer, said industrial robots would carry out all but one of the tasks needed to grow the tens of thousands of lettuces it produces each day at its vast indoor farm in Kameoka, Kyoto prefecture, starting from mid-2017.
The robots will do everything from re-planting young seedlings to watering, trimming and harvesting crops.
The innovation will boost production from 21,000 lettuces a day to 50,000 a day, the firm said, adding that it planned to raise that figure to half a million lettuces daily within five years.
“The seeds will still be planted by humans, but every other step, from the transplanting of young seedlings to larger spaces as they grow to harvesting the lettuces, will be done automatically,” said JJ Price, Spread’s global marketing manager.
The new farm – an extension of its existing Kameoka farm – will improve efficiency and reduce labour costs by about half. The use of LED lighting means energy costs will be slashed by almost a third, and about 98% of the water needed to grow the crops will be recycled.
The farm, measuring about 4,400 sq metres, will have floor-to-ceiling shelves where the produce is grown.
The introduction of robotics will enable the firm to increase production by an additional 30,000 heads of lettuce a day to 51,000 a day between its two farms.
The firm, which supply lettuces to about 2,000 supermarkets in Japan, was quick to point out that the robot farmers will not be androids dressed in waxed jackets and tweed caps. Instead, Spread’s machines look more like conveyer belts equipped with custom-made robotic arms that can transfer lettuce seedlings without harming them.
The automated system will not only handle lettuces, but will also control the temperature, humidity and CO2 levels, as well as sterilise water and control light sources.