Domo Arigato

By ERIN BALDASSARI  |  May 2, 2011

robotharvest480

HARVEST AUTOMATION, INC.


THE BOT
| Doesn't have a name yet

THE INDUSTRY | Agriculture

THE PROBLEM | Labor-intensive, tedious work at plant nurseries

THE SOLUTION | An autonomous robot to pick up and space out plants

LEARN MORE | harvestautomation.com

When robotics consultant Charles Grinnell met three iRobot employees — Paul Sandin, Clara Vu, and Roomba inventor Joe Jones — in 2006, they all agreed that they wanted to create a new robot to solve a practical problem. "We started looking all over the place," Grinnell says. "We looked at meat-packing, at fishing, and eventually agriculture. We noticed that when you buy an ornamental plant from, say, The Home Depot, it doesn't get grown there. It's usually grown on some gigantic farm in Florida or California or wherever." These plants are generally placed in one-, two-, or three-gallon plastic pots. Armies of laborers have to pick up the pots from one end of a 1000-acre plot and put them down on the other end of the plot in nice, even rows. It's tiring, repetitive, and boring. Jones knew robots could do it better.

"He saw the workers basically moving around plants all day and thought, 'Okay, this is where we can create a successful product to automate labor at a commercially attractive price point,' " says Grinnell.

The company was able to raise $5 million by 2009, and moved into their 6000-square-foot Billerica office space in 2010.

"That's when we really got going," Grinnell says. "Now we have about 20 employees, mostly engineers, and we're on our third generation of the machine." Still unnamed, the Harvest Automation robot works by following a yellow ribbed strip defining the edges of the plot where a farmer needs plants. The bot simply looks for a cluster of crowded plastic pots, picks up a pot, and carries it to the edge of the boundary, where it drops off the pot in evenly spaced rows. Its sensors alert it to any obstacles or unfamiliar objects, though it occasionally confuses plastic pots with other things in its way.

"There's no big technology innovation that allowed this product to be successful," says Grinnell. "All of the sensors we use are standard for all autonomous vehicles. We just had to figure out what robots do well versus what people do well." The robot will be ready for commercial use late this year or early next year, Grinnell says. Until then, they'll be working out design kinks on farms in Connecticut, Oregon, Florida, and elsewhere.

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