RT: What is Harvest Automation doing?
JJ: We found this very cool and very apropos application for robots. If you go to a garden store, you will find many potted plants sitting around. All those plants came from container farms scattered around the country. The largest ones are hundreds of acres.
At a trade show we discovered that there is an operation everyone in this market performs a spacing operation. When you first put the seedling in a pot, it is okay for them to be next to each other. But after a while, the plants start to grow and if you do not move them, they damage each other.
[The growers] might move them from a greenhouse to a field or from one field to another, but [the plants] go from being close together to being spaced apart. For 50 or more years, the industry has been doing this manually. We thought this was an ideal application for robots.
RT: Where are you at in development of the product?
JJ: We do not have a product on the market yet. We have some prototypes, and we hope to develop the product and get it to market in the next couple of years.
We have knocked down many of the largest areas of technical risk; but we have a few more to go. After that, we will enter the development phase where we hope to build products reliable enough to work for customers.
RT: Can you describe any of the technical hurdles you have overcome?
JJ: When you put pots down in the field, they are supposed to be spaced in a particular way, so you have a nice pattern, either a grid pattern or hexagonal pattern for instance. The pots need to be within an inch or two of proper placement.
We believe we have resolved that in a cost effective way, with our system called ‘marked boundary’ and [by] dead reckoning. Errors can grow as the robot moves around, so we reference the robot to this boundary. It is a mark that the robot is able to detect. We have patents are pending on it.
RT: Can you describe an area of technical risk you have yet to overcome?
JJ: The robot has to find the pot, pick it up and put it down somewhere else. The thing we are working on now is to give the robot an accurate idea of where the pot is.
We have a way to do it now, but we are not satisfied with it. We are using discrete components designed for something else. So we will either redesign those or use a camera system designed to our specifications. All this is classified as industrial automation.