Vegetable factory: the first robotic, farmerless farm

Signal of change / Vegetable factory: the first robotic, farmerless farm

By Will Ingram / 02 Feb 2016

A vegetable factory that plans to open in Kyoto in 2017 will be the first farm without farmers. The 4,800-square-metre indoor facility will be entirely run by robots.

The Japanese vegetable factory plans to grow 80,000 heads of lettuce per day vertically, beneath LED lighting, and aims to expand this to 500,000 per day by 2020.

The company behind the new farm, Spread Co. LTD, already runs the world’s largest vegetable factory in Kameoka, Japan, which uses artificial lighting to grow 10,000 lettuce heads per day with a production yield of 97%.

By fully automating the process the company is aiming to reduce labour costs by 50%, double productivity per unit volume, and optimise lighting, air conditioning, moisture and water use. Automation has also enabled 98% of the water used in cultivation to be recycled.

Further proposed benefits include the reduction of risk of human contamination, and round-the-clock growing and harvesting.

Initial investment costs of an automated facility are down by 25%.

So what?

Showing that food production from seed to harvest can be automated is one thing. Making profit from producing 10 million lettuces a year using robots is another, and a clear indicator that much more food could be grown with zero human labour in the future.

The company has outlined that its two goals are to reduce cost, and to work towards environmental friendliness.

Minimising energy intensive inputs, and stopping soil erosion and agri-chemical overuse will certainly make this a more environmentally sustainable way of producing food. In the face of water and food shortages these are likely to be increasingly good solutions.

Local production in urban areas also could also reduce transport.

Cost reduction will facilitate these developments. “Operation costs have been falling due to advances in technology, such as more efficient LED lighting, water recycling, and air management systems. The introduction of automation also reduces many of the associated labour costs, so we believe that we are on the right track.” says J.J. Price, Global Marketing Manager for Spread.

Indoor, automated vegetable factories could produce food in far more places than traditional farms. Could such systems be implemented in inaccessible world regions, in the hearts of cities, or off-shore? Or even in Space?

Head of Food at Forum for the Future, Mark Driscoll, argues that “Many of today’s environmental and social challenges have been caused by the disconnection between citizens and the growing, cooking and preparation of food. Taken too far, could this drive to automation reinforce this disconnection and continue to drive unsustainable behaviours?”

Furthermore, having large business rather than small-holders produce our food may foster unhelpful monopolies.

The extent of how important human monitoring, control and decision making will be is unclear. Nevertheless, with the removal of a labour market from certain areas of the world, what could companies do to develop new opportunities for workers?

Sources

EcoWatch (November 18, 2015) World’s First Robotic Farm to Produce 30,000 Heads of Lettuce Per Day

Spread (August 3, 2015) Press Release

Mashable (November 16, 2015) Green Innovation: This company is growing the future of automated agriculture

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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