According to former vertical farmer Christopher Weis Thomasen, CEO and co-founder of Seasony, vertical farming is perfectly positioned to fulfill the world's growing food demand. However, there is a cost problem, he told attendees of the Vertical Farming Conference. “But what is that cost problem really?”
The cost of labor
The CAPEX of vertical farms with everything that needs to be bought is rather high. “On the OPEX side there’s some strain as well, with energy being a big expense in vertical farming – it can be 20 to 35% of the OPEX. But the real big cost is labor: around 30 to 60% of the OPEX.”
Moving and monitoring
A lot of that labor comes from people moving plants from one system to another within the vertical farm. “We see scissor lifts and forklifts being used, and then we’ve also seen a lot of time spent monitoring plants. All of this we can bundle back into a robotic solution.”
Looking at the solutions in the market today, Christopher points out there are a number of larger setups. “There are vertical lift modules, or AS/RS systems – these have been tried and tested, having been used for quite a while in the industry and in warehousing, so it’s reliable, but also quite CAPEX-heavy. Nor is it very flexible – if you have to change something like a part, that’s quite difficult.”
Christopher during the webinar
Moving one level lower, to what Christopher calls the ‘middle ground’, is an AGV, like a forklift or mobile robot. “There’s still some infrastructure: you need lines on the floor for robots to follow, usually made for carrying pallets with tons of equipment. Now, in the warehouse industry, we’re also seeing a movement towards AMRs, Autonomous Mobile Robots, which can navigate by themselves.” Those AMRs have usually been made for ground-floor applications: moving around pallets on the floor, or even smaller subjects.
“In the warehouse and production industry, you see these robots becoming more and more popular, first of all because of the price: usually these are quite cheap solutions compared to the other automation solutions. It is also more flexible, so if you make changes to your facility, it's simply a matter of taking a walk with the robots again. This type of flexible automation is really taking the warehouse industry by storm.”
Another trend Christopher points to is the Autonomous Mobile Robot movement going into agriculture. “This is very much on the outdoor side. We’ve seen quite a lot of companies start up and bigger companies putting a lot of money in this.” In the greenhouse industry, some of these solutions are also being implemented.
It gets worse, then better
“The labor problem in vertical farming will only get worse,” Christopher predicts. “You see an aging population in the West, and there’s also less access to a lower-education workforce. Also, in Europe and the US, getting immigrant labor will be more difficult. Especially now, with COVID, you see that problem becoming bigger, with closed borders and facilities that have to be shut down due to outbreaks.”
Companies like Seasony are offering solutions, Christopher says. With their sensors, they can measure things like CO2 and temperature, as well as gather camera data. This makes sure information is documented – information that would otherwise remain in the head of a person who might retire or quit.
“The solution that we built is a mobile robot. Because we’re working in vertical farms, there’s a lift in there as well – quite a critical component.” The robot can be customized with various top modules, like cameras, special grippers, or robotic arms, depending on specific crop needs.
These robots can be programmed with their own routines, Christopher explains. What is more, they can be integrated into farm management systems.
At the end of his presentation, Christopher looks at the future of robotics in vertical farming. “We’re moving more and more from hard robotics, fixed installations, towards a more collaborative and interactive environment. Besides that, with the data gathering, everyone can have knowledge of what’s going on at the farm so we can start optimizing.”
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Vertical Farming Conference