The Future of Horticulture with Robots
The horticulture industry has caught the attention of several robotics industry veterans, including Joe Jones, a co-inventor of iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. What they see is an opportunity to develop a small, relatively inexpensive, mobile material handling robot. Their venture-backed company has been field testing the robots at 11 nurseries around the country, and plans to release its first product at the end of the first quarter or beginning of the second quarter next year.
Harvest Automation bootstrapped the development of prototype robots and received its seed funding from its customers, said CEO Charles Grinnell. The company landed $5 million in venture capital funding from Life Sciences Partners, the Midpoint Food & Ag Fund, and the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation.
In today’s human-tended nurseries, immature potted trees and shrubs arrive at nurseries by truck and are offloaded onto the ground. Teams of migrant workers — undocumented for the most part — spread the plants out one by one following markers outlining a grid. When the plants are ready to be shipped out later in the season, workers reverse the process to group the plants for loading onto trucks. “We’ve recognized the need for robotics in the nursery industry for moving pots because it’s one of our highest concentrations of labor use,” said Tom Demaline, president of Willoway Nurseries, Inc. in Avon, Ohio.