Robot Farm: Machines Plant, Sort, and Grow Crops

In an era where resources and space are dwindling, and the global population is booming, the question of how we’re going to feed everyone has been pushed to the fore. The answers proposed run the gamut: A massive return to localized farming so food production better caters to communities! Genetically modified crops that promise to increase crop yields! Vertical farms in the middle of major cities! Robots that efficiently plant, nurture, and grow crops automatically in mechanized indoor farms!

And yes, each of those ideas for idealizing food production has already been put into action in one way or another — even the robot farms. For proof, check out this slow-paced, but weirdly enthralling video of an automated hydroponic lettuce farm:

According to Singularity Hub, the robotic systems were designed by a Dutch robotic automation company called Hortiplan. The Hub explains how the robotic farm operates:

The hydroponic rows you see being filled and maneuvered are part of their Mobile Gully System. The MGS not only plants the lettuce and arranges it in the field, it also moves the crop along as it develops, and delivers it to the right part of the greenhouse for harvest. That picking is done by hand …

Hydroponics and automation seem to go together very well. Hortiplan’s MGS uses what’s known as the nutrient film technique. Essentially, the gullies (trays) have a very thin layer of nutrient rich water flowing through them. That water is pumped to one end of the field and then flows downhill (there’s a very slight slope on the trays). Lettuce is continually watered, slowly moved across the field by the MGS, which also increases the spaces between gullies so the plants have room to grow. By the time they reach the far end they’re ready for harvest.

There are already a number of automated operations like this cranking away, but most people are hardly aware they exist — most of us have a pretty poor idea of where our food comes from these days. And the end result of this automating of farming is pretty clear — more food for less labor, and at the expense of fewer resources.

Which, on its face, and in the long run, is a good thing. But as these processes get more effective, they’ll eventually displace farmers who’ve for generations worked more traditional farms. This is nothing new either; technology is always improving, and minimizing the number of employees necessary to do a task. But it’s another reminder that we’re going to have to start thinking about what that hugely machine-dominated economy of the future might look like. Because somewhere between now and the day when we all live in some techno-utopia where machines do all of our work for us (hey, some philosophers think it’ll happen), we’re going to figure out just how everyone’s going to make a living. If we can do that, I’ll gladly welcome our gigantic lettuce-farming robotic overlords.

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Image credit: 6Ms Ag Biosystem Eng Enterprises & Consultancy Corp

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

168 thoughts on “Robot Farm: Machines Plant, Sort, and Grow Crops

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