Sep 26, 2022
Where are all the robots?

Over the past several months, the winners of the International Fresh Produce Association Fresh Field Catalyst Accelerator program have been immersing themselves in the produce industry. In some cases, these companies have solutions that exist in agriculture but haven’t quite dabbled in produce, or they may be in specific regional markets looking to go global.

The goal of the Fresh Field Catalyst is to recognize these companies with solutions that are ready for or already in the market and to help speed the development of these solutions to be adapted to the produce industry. 

Vonnie Estes, IFPA

Between our monthly webinars, immersion week in the spring and the winners’ preparation to participate at the Global Produce & Floral Show’s Food Safety and Tech X-Change segment of the Expo, they’ve learned a lot about the industry — and we all have learned a lot about the solutions on the horizon for our industry. I recently sat down with representatives from winning company Nexus Robotics, an automation company founded five years ago by engineering students from Halifax. We talked about automation, solving labor problems and, of course, robots. 

In my conversation with Teric Greenan, COO of Nexus, and Luc Labbe, CEO of Nexus, I learned that the company’s genius exists at the juncture of unfettered critical design thinking and extensive agronomic knowledge. I learned a lot about how their technology works, which provides a solution for a task that is as basic as the technology is complex: weeding. 

Why weeding? Simply put, Teric, a city kid who fell in love with agriculture, was absolutely shocked when he realized how much time and resources were being spent on repetitive and frankly, least enjoyable, tasks. No one believes that farm work is easy or that all tasks are equally as desirable or rewarding. Add that to the current workforce challenges facing our industry, and there is an ever-increasing urgency to find solutions for those repetitive and backbreaking jobs. 

We all agreed that this is where automation will grow first: addressing those dirty, dangerous jobs that no one wants. 

So, where are all the robots? They’re coming but scaling and development is an iterative process that takes time. It’s an extraordinary feat to consider that this team, like others in their field, are creating an automated robot that crawls fields, can recognize and differentiate between weed and crop, and knows how to pluck that weed out of the ground without damaging the fruit or vegetable. That level of intelligence and physical equipment requires a great investment and a smart commercialization plan. Luc described their “robot as a service” approach, allowing companies to lease robots throughout their seasons instead of purchasing their own permanent fleet. 

It may take years, decades even, before we see a fully automated field workforce. However, one of the key approaches to adoption will be the ability to consolidate skills and tasks. We’re not far off, though, as Luc shared that their current iteration is not only weeding as it passes over some lettuce fields but thinning out the lettuce as well. This ability to consolidate and increase the versatility of these tools will not only drive the adoption but exponentially increase the value for a farmer. 

The robots are coming, but for now, they’re learning and growing. While we help to teach these bots to emulate the tasks of humans, we keep performing these tasks and keep pushing through the countless variables that make agricultural work difficult. From climate change impact to the ever-changing fight against pests and disease, compounded with issues like reliable labor sources, the need for intelligent automated solutions continues to grow. Not only will we need companies and innovators like Nexus, but we’ll need farmers who are willing to be early adopters to accelerate the learning and refinement needed for robots to be a meaningful labor-replacement solution. 

Anyone interested in learning more about Nexus or any of the other Fresh Field Catalyst Winners can visit with them at the Global Produce & Floral Show Expo from Oct. 28-30 in Orlando, Florida. 

—Vonnie Estes, vice president of Agfood Tech Innovation for the International Fresh Produce Association 

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