A robot that lends a hand in greenhouses

Posted on Friday, November 9th, 2018

Written by Amber Hutchinson

Yellow robotic arm in a tomato greenhouse
Photo: Medhat Moussa

The labour-intensive task of harvesting and pruning has become a challenge for greenhouse vegetable growers, making up to 30 per cent of their overall costs.

Can robots help?

Prof. Medhat Moussa, School of Engineering, thinks so. He’s developing a robot system he hopes will be able to harvest, package and de-leaf greenhouse crops without assistance from humans. A prototype is currently being put to the test by harvesting tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers—Ontario’s main greenhouse crops—in Leamington greenhouses. 

The robot uses specialized visioning technology to first determine whether a vegetable is ripe, then devises a plan to collect and package the vegetable.

That sounds impressive enough but these robots aren’t just for harvesting. For example, disease can sweep through a greenhouse and quickly wipe out an entire crop. It is impossible for one scout – one human scout, that is – to visit each plant every day, so generally plants may be screened for disease only once a week. 

A robot, however, would have much more capacity to do so. Moussa is working on developing a system that will allow the robot to more frequently collect data on all plants in the greenhouse to monitor for disease. 

Once the fully developed robot hits the market, it has the potential to reduce labour costs and labour shortages, and pay for itself in five years. 

Funding for this research is provided by the OMAFRA- U of G Partnership. Additional funding is provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

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