A Kingsville-based data collection company in Ruthven Ont. is bringing autonomous computer imaging and tracking technology inside vegetable greenhouses to fine tune indoor growing methods.
Staff at Ecoation say Ontario’s growing greenhouse industry faces challenges that prevent greenhouse vegetable growers from keeping up with labour demand while producing higher yields, hoping their prototype robots will soon become accessible for farms.
“In Ontario, we’ve seen greenhouse acreage increase by 40 per cent since 2016, which is pretty significant, but we haven’t seen the same professional workforce that manages these greenhouses grow by 40 per cent,” said, Daniel Bateson, Ecoation agronomy lead.
“Things like autonomous movement has been around in different industrial facilities before. Things like computer vision and image tracking is something that’s existed before, but we’re bringing it all together into a greenhouse space for probably the first time ever.”
Bateson says their automatic monitoring and scouting systems can operate day and night to fill gaps physical labour leaves behind, giving growers extensive and exclusive insight into potential pest or disease concerns that can then be mitigated to better forecast yields.
“Some of those gaps are things like just keeping track of what’s going on, optimizing your treatments for pest management, or a really big one is production management. Making sure that you’re letting people know how much you’re going to harvest in the next week or in the future so that they can plan for it,” Bateson said.
“Human plus machine is definitely our motto at Ecoation, but we’re building these robots that people are using to help them become more efficient and more precise when they’re doing their jobs.”
“The premise of this is it can travel around the greenhouse at night, collect a lot of information and then when you come back in the morning, you can give it to someone who knows what they’re doing. And they can go solve the problems that really a human can solve.”
Bateson told CTV News the autonomous solutions still require people to fulfill greenhouse operations.
“We still need boots on the ground. We still need people to help do the work, but we can make their jobs easier, more enjoyable, more efficient, and get more out of it as well,” he said.
“It is really cool. It’s really fun too!”
Bateson noted the United Nations predicts the world’s population to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, suggesting there will always be room for improvement in sourcing and securing food supplies.
“It’s a really good time to be interested in agriculture. So if you’re a data scientist or an engineer or someone who’s working in computer science and coding, you might not always consider agriculture as an opportunity. But it’s a great space to be if you’re an innovator,” he said.
“We yield approximately 15 to 20 per cent more per square meter than conventional farming,” stated Richard Lee, executive director for Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
Lee said inflationary pressures and lack of infrastructure has stymied some greenhouse growth, telling CTV News autonomous solutions are necessary in this day and age to keep up with competitiveness and global demand.
“We kind of chuckle about Amazon and how convenient it is to purchase all these things. But it’s the data. That data that they compile on each individual user is no different what we’re trying to achieve,” Lee explained.
“We’re trying to collect as much data, create those algorithms to best support higher yields and optimum growing conditions. Using that automation to check every inch of that greenhouse to ensure that we can maximize our yields to lower those costs of productions and be more efficient.”
Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers in Leamington, Ont. on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. (Chris Campbell/CTV News Windsor)