Robotics, machine vision, and automation – The Future Reality of Flower Production

The new reality

It would be very hard to argue against the notion, that a wide range of technologies will lead to marked changes to horticultural production systems in the coming decades. Many (possibly all!) other industry sectors are facing the same reality:

1) Automation – It is all about labor savings and efficiency!  Robots are becoming less expensive, smaller and lighter, more robust, easier to use and program, more agile – all leading to robots being able to solve more problems and handle a wider range of specific tasks.

2) Batteries are lasting longer, faster to recharge, and less expensive – enabling airborne drones and ground-based rovers to operate longer and carry larger payloads. And, with longer battery life, there may be greater potential for increased sensing of crops in production facilities. 

3) Sensors (cameras, weather stations, soils sensors, etc) are becoming ever more sensitive and robust, less expensive, and easier to use – this means more and better data that can be used to monitor growing conditions more accurately over space and time, and they can be fed into control algorithms to predict yields, pest outbreaks, input requirements and many other things.

4) Internet connections (wired and wireless) are becoming faster and more reliable, which means data can flow effortlessly from horticultural production system to super-computers, which then crunch the numbers and send back all sorts of recommendations, trends, diagnostics, and maps.   

5) Machine learning, including artificial Intelligence, are advanced computer algorithms, which are used to identify trends in large and complicated data sets. That is, data from multiple sources (sensors, websites, etc.) are integrated, processed, and classified in ways that produce predictions, diagnostics, and trends, and these outputs can be used as decision support tools as part of optimizing the management of horticultural production systems.

This is the new reality, and you as growers and managers in flower production operations are gradually embracing more and more hardware and software solutions that are part of this new kind of “digital farming environment”. Now, some may think that small operations cannot afford drones, technology, and access to super-computers, and others may be worried about and maybe even feel intimidated by the potential “learning curve” – all the training needed to be able to effectively utilize and take advantage of these technologies in your operations. A major part of many applied research programs is to develop these advanced technological programs. Simultaneously, a growing number of private companies are getting involved, and there is an ever-changing landscape of such companies providing combinations of equipment/hardware and service solutions. In several important ways, I predict that technology and innovation will make flower production easier and more efficient. With the growing amount of applied research into the use of advanced technologies and companies commercializing both equipment and service solutions, the costs of these technologies will decline and become progressively more robust and user-friendly. You are probably getting phone calls and emails from companies wanting to sell you a new toy of some sort – as the person contacting you claims that it will solve most, if not all, your current problems. And maybe you attend trade shows or conferences and learn about these new technologies, but you are uncertain about how they might be of use to you.


Your reality – your questions

Do not fret!  Let us talk.  I am asking you to share your views on and questions about this new reality in which this wide range of technological advancements is being converted into possible solutions to your challenges. I am asking you to email me and let me know how you view this? What recent experiences have you had with novel technologies (good or bad)? What type of technologies are you in need of? As I receive your emails, I will try to synthesize them in upcoming newsletters and go over specific topics, which appear to be of broader relevance. I will handle your emails without disclosing any names of companies, individuals, or regions/countries. That is, I will ensure 100% confidentiality. But I will use your emails to ensure that the upcoming articles are relevant to you, as they will be written based on the feedback, I receive from you. So, you decide the agenda! I am very much looking forward to hearing from you!!

With research support from the American Floral Endowment and the Floral and Nursery Research Initiative, our group at UC-Davis and other universities have a real opportunity to provide solutions using new technology and innovation.

By Christian Nansen, Associate Professor at University of California Davis
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