Do robots dream of electric hot dogs? The future of Robotics in the agri-food industry

By December 2, 2019Uncategorized
Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

By 2050, humans will have to double the current food production in order to feed the growing world’s population and adapt to evolving consumption habits. However, considering how damaging and impactful the agro-industry has been in the past years with respect to climate change as well as soil and water quality, we will have no choice but to find much more efficient as well as sustainable agri-food production methods to feed the close to 10 billion people that will populate Earth in a few decades.

Agri-food is a term that combines the words agriculture and food to relate to all the food production activities. According to Esther Delignat-Lavaud Rodriguez, the term agri-food can be split into two parts: agritech referring to technologies that target farmers and foodtech, technologies targeting manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and consumers.

According to the European Union (EU), agri-food industries and services provide over 44 million jobs within the EU territory, among which 20 million workers in the agricultural sector itself. As market trends move towards better products, sustainable production, diversification in the offer and new consumption habits, it is estimated that the global food and agriculture industry is worth at least $8 trillion.

With automation in every industry becoming a reality, the agri-food sector could definitely benefit from the current technology breakthroughs to improve its efficiency, especially through robotics.

Indeed, robots are becoming more and more part of every human-related activity including agriculture, livestock farming, and nature conservation industries. Their implementation seeks to improve working conditions, generate higher yields and increase overall product quality.

Here are for instance some farming tasks in which robots could help following a report from the Wageningen University:

  1. assessing the quality and sorting seeds,
  2. assessing the quality and sorting seedling,
  3. assessing quality in the greenhouse,
  4. assessing quality in the field,
  5. precision techniques in the field,
  6. autonomous navigation,
  7. harvesting,
  8. assessing quality and sorting products,
  9. processing products, packing products
  10. and more!

Keen on some concrete examples? Here we go:

  • Hello Chickenboy!

Faromatics is one of the startups accelerated by the RobotUnion programme in the agrifood sector. They focus on bringing high tech to livestock production. How?

By monitoring animals continuously, their aim is to detect needs quickly and reliably. Their technology helps farmers identify welfare issues, oncoming diseases, and equipment failures, as well as assess the living conditions of the animals remotely.

Their product Chickenboy is the world-wide first roof-suspended robot that observes chickens, litter and equipment autonomously 24/7.

The robot monitors air quality, health, and welfare through a multitude of sensors and cameras inspects equipment operation and informs farmers, stock persons or vets via mobile alarms.

  • For tomato go to Automato!

Automato is a company accelerated by the RobotUnion programme and developing a robot that works on greenhouses soils and in high tunnels to harvest tomatoes. Their aim is to get their solution to market and to demonstrate repeatable harvesting quality in order to create a groundbreaking experience for growers.

Fresh tomatoes are the most common vegetable that is grown in greenhouses and are generally manually harvested. Tomato growers have a hard time finding the labour to work in their greenhouses as the work is repetitive and performed in hot and humid conditions. As a consequence, their robot is a great solution for the vegetable harvesting sector.

  • No more back and forward casings!

Proxima Centauri is a company that aims at using its unique technology to reduce costs and improve the quality of the food in the sausage industry. They are also accelerated through the RobotUnion programme.

All sausage factories use intestines, known as natural casings. It’s important that casing diameter is correct  Today, casings from around 200 million pigs from Europe are cleaned, salted, packaged and sent to China to be sorted 100% manually. Around 7.000 people in China measure and sort casing from Europe. In addition, it is worth pointing out that the current process is very expensive.

Their solution SelectiCa3 is a robot designed to automatically pick up, measure and sort casings following the desired diameters. SelectiCa3 is a great way to reduce costs and the final product.

  • Starting the discussion now!

Among the leaders of the ongoing conversation is Jungle, an open-source platform for autonomous production. They coined the “robofacturing” concept, based on the idea of an improved production system in manufacturing. This could be achieved by implementing software-defined manufacturing in an affordable, flexible and quick way.

The past 24th October, Jungle organised in Barcelona  Robofacturing real food for everyone, an event supported by RobotUnion. The discussion revolved around the topic of automated production of food using robotics and software-defined manufacturing that will improve food production processes from farms to forks.


 

The sector needs to recognize that it should be taking new technological steps to increase productivity and meet the demand without damaging the environment. An approach proposed by agrifood experts Phil Webster, Frederik van Oene and Maki Kurosawa in their article The future of Agri-Food. Foresight in the challenges that need to be addressed in the future is essential.

Written by Natalia Cardona Mercado for RobotUnion

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