This Startup Wants Vertical Farmers to Hire a Robot Gardener

Arugula micro greens are grown at AeroFarms on February 19, 2019, in Newark, New Jersey.
Arugula micro greens are grown at AeroFarms on February 19, 2019, in Newark, New Jersey.
Photo: Photo by Angela Weiss (Getty Images)

In recent years, vertical farming has emerged as a futurist’s solution to the world’s agricultural problems. The growing trend seeks to use controlled environments to boost food production, leveraging indoor labs where temperature, light, and nutrients can be mechanically controlled.

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Yet while vertical farms have gained in popularity, they are also still very expensive. When compared to conventional farming, these farms necessitate the purchase of pricey equipment to aid human labor—a fact that, when paired with other economic pressures, has apparently led to an industry “littered with bankruptcies.”

One company hopes to change this dire picture. Enter Watney the robot.

Watney was designed by start-up Seasony. The company, which was featured today at this year’s Alchemist Accelerator’s Demo Day, has sought to make the tech-farming trend more accessible by automating away some of the more difficult labor involved.

Illustration for article titled This Startup Wants Vertical Farmers to Hire a Robot Gardener
Image: Screenshot: Youtube/TV2LORRY

“By automating the production with robotics and remote monitoring, we can lower labor costs and offer solutions for food producers that is economically viable and environmentally sustainable,” the company claims on their website.

Indeed, Watney is designed to augment (and, in many ways, replace) a human labor force—currently one of the biggest expenditures for vertical farms. Essentially an intelligent, automated cart, the robot was designed to “move and transport plant trays” within a farming hub. In techno-jargon, it is an autonomous mobile manipulation robot (AMMR), a type of machine known for moving and manipulating items on its own. It is also equipped with a camera that captures image data and sends it back to farm management software for human analysis. Watney also gathers valuable horticultural data to help farmers optimize yields, said Christopher Weis Thomasen, Seasony’s CEO and Co-Founder, in an email.

From left to right: Erkan Tosti Taskiran, Servet Coskun and Christopher Weis Thomasen.
From left to right: Erkan Tosti Taskiran, Servet Coskun and Christopher Weis Thomasen.
Photo: Photo from Seasony.
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“We are doing for vertical farming what the integration of autonomous mobile robots did to amazon. We are able to decrease the costs of growing food in a vertical farm by alleviating the logistics pains of working from scissor lifts,” said Thomasen.

Thomasen, a mechanical engineer, and his two co-founders electrical engineer Servet Coskun and business specialist Erkan Tosti Taskiran, were inspired to create the business while brainstorming what it would take to sustain life in outer space (Watney the robot is named after Mark Watney, the astronaut in the movie The Martian, who, after being stranded on the Red Planet, fertilizes potatoes with his own poop to survive).

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“It quickly evolved to Seasony setting up a vertical farming lab and exploring the technical challenges facing the new industry. Reducing the costs related to labor is key in order to scale vertical farming and make agriculture more sustainable,” Thomasen said.

There is, of course, some debate in the farming community about the social costs incurred through the large-scale displacement of human labor.

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Presumably, we will have to wait to see what that cost-saving process looks like. Seasony, which is still getting off the ground, plans to do a pilot trial with the largest vertical farm in Europe in April. It has plans to conduct further testing with several smaller vertical farms, as well, Thomasen said.

Staff writer at Gizmodo

DISCUSSION

More robots would also make high-intensity organic agriculture more cost-competitive with conventional agriculture (you can get high yields with it, but it’s really labor-intensive to match the yields from conventional agriculture).

I don’t think skyfarming is ever going to be economically viable in the US unless the yield advantage over regular agriculture is truly enormous. The US has a lot of cheap land that can be irrigated and fertilized for farming.

There is, of course, some debate in the farming community about the social costs incurred through the large-scale displacement of human labor.

That boat sailed about 100+ years ago in the US. Farm labor tends to be pretty low-paid as well, even when they have unions - I don’t think it’s going to be a huge challenge for them to find similar or better pay elsewhere if the economy overall is booming.