Spacing plant containers is considered one of the least enviable jobs at a nursery.
Aside from the physical strain of constantly bending over to lift and move the pots, the task is mind-numbingly repetitive.
“There’s getting to be a shortage of people who want to do that work,” said Ken Altman, president of Vista, Calif.-based Altman Plants.
Faced with a shrinking labor pool, Altman decided to relegate the unpopular function to a group of workers that didn’t object to its monotony: autonomous robots.
Since last year, the company has bought eight HV-100 robots from Harvest Automation, a startup company based in Billerica, Mass.
“They seem to be at least as effective as people,” said Altman.
Harvest Automation, which was founded in 2009, saw a big opportunity for robotics in agriculture — particularly in specialty crops where a lot of work is still done by hand.
The nursery industry seemed like a good entry point because “it’s a continuous, almost factory-like setting,” said John Kawola, the firm’s CEO.
“There’s a bunch of these movement tasks that are pretty much done manually, which the robots are programmed to do,” he said. “Take the work that is repeatable, repetitive and backbreaking and automate that work.”
After developing the HV-100 and testing it in 2011 and 2012, Harvest Automation began selling the robots this year, Kawola said. The machines cost $30,000 each and have been installed at 10 locations around the country so far.
The robots rely on a strip of reflective tape for navigation and use lasers to scan the position of containers. Their grippers can be adjusted to lift 1- to 5-gallon containers weighing up to 25 pounds.
It takes about 30 seconds to program a robot to arrange the containers in various patterns and distances from each other. Those configurations can also be saved for future work.
The robots look for holes in the pattern and then find containers to fill them. They aren’t stumped if a worker removes pots while the machine is operating and can consolidate containers that have been arranged haphazardly.
“It’s fully autonomous. You’re setting it up to do the work and then walking away,” Kawola said.
While the robots are designed to move over gravel and uneven terrain, they can’t climb over obstacles like thick irrigation pipes and would have difficulty in operating on a slope steeper than 6 degrees, he said.
With labor becoming more scarce, the robots are meant to free up workers for tasks that require more judgment or dexterity, said Kawola. “Moving the containers is the worst job and nobody wants to do it.”
In the future, Harvest Automation expects its robots to perform other duties, like applying chemicals, he said. Robot applicators would be more precise than spraying the plants with a boom, which wastes pesticides that fall between containers.
“I think every opportunity to replace human hands needs to be looked at,” said Ben Cecil, operations manager at Loma Vista Nursery in Ottawa, Kans.
The company bought three HV-100s earlier this year to make better use of its workforce, which was spending roughly 10,000 hours a year on spacing and consolidation.
“We’d have plenty of labor if we paid $20 an hour, but the nursery couldn’t survive on that,” Cecil said.
The nursery has made solid progress in figuring out how to use the robots more efficiently, and the system will likely save money over time, he said.
Altman said he expects his robots to pay for themselves in labor savings over a year and a half. He hopes that robots can eventually be used for dropping slow-release fertilizer into containers, which is now done by hand.
“We just want the work to be higher and higher level” for human employees, he said.
Bob Terry, owner of Fisher Farms nursery in Gaston, Ore., said he was impressed with the robots’ functioning at a field test, but would refrain from buying any until Harvest Automation has more specifics about the payback on investment.
However, the concept of robotics in the nursery industry “has a lot of potential,” he said. “We’ve got to get there. We’ve been antiquated long enough.”