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Tomation is:

  • Initiative of tomato producers and Priva
  • More grip on labor
  • Fully independently operating platform
  • Deleafing is 'only' a first application
  • Prototype will be tested in practice
  • Objectives closer
Want to know more about robotics in horticulture?
Ronald Zeelen
 
  • Together with a large group of tomato growers Priva has developed a robot, which removes leaves from tomato plants completely independently and in an economically profitable manner. Labour is indeed a significant cost item for a grower. Crop labour often represents a big physical strain for employees and in addition can be rather monotonous. This development has moved into an important new phase!

    The lowest leaves of each plant are regularly removed in tomato growing. Amongst other things, this promotes ripening of the tomatoes. This crop cultivation is called deleafing or leaf cutting depending on the method used. Two to three leaves per plant are removed during this procedure that is usually performed weekly. It is important during this procedure that the leaf is removed as close to the stem as possible. This is to prevent diseases, such as botrytis, from occurring in the crop.

    Together with a group of tomato growers, a few years ago Priva faced a difficult challenge: to develop a robot that could remove leaves from tomato plants in the greenhouse completely independently. The objective is not only to create a robot, which mimics the performance of a human, but the robot also needs to be economically viable. Nobody has yet been able to design and market such a robot. Growers and Priva have taken this step to lay a foundation for automating various crop procedures in the greenhouse: deleafing is only one of the applications, and the tomato is only one of the crops.

    The challenges

    The fundamental challenge of automated deleafing is to identify the right leaves in a 'sea of green' and to remove them carefully within a short period of time. Because every plant is different and, for instance, light conditions are always changing, stringent requirements are stipulated in respect of recording technologies. For this reason, state-of-the-art vision-technologies are applied in the project. If a leaf is found, it is removed using a cutting module specially mounted on a robot arm. This robot arm and the cutting module have been designed to be as compact as possible in order to be able to move through the crop without damaging it. The components must be effectively resistant to contamination and the effects of sap from the tomato plant. 

    To be able to be economically viable, the robot must be able to remove a large number of leaves per hour. This means that the robot arm must be able to move quickly and that the vision technologies must be able to determine the position of the leaves quickly and reliably. The point of reference is the current level of labour costs. Throughout the project whether the robot can be used economically viably is something that is being monitored continuously. Testing inside the greenhouse plays a big role in this: something may well look really fantastic on the drawing board, but ultimately it's the results that count!

    Collaboration

    A unique collaboration underpins the project. On the one hand, there are the growers that realise that sooner or later labour becomes a limiting factor for the performance of their business and that a development needs to be set into motion to prevent this. And on the other, there are the suppliers, who share the same vision and do not shy away from taking on what technically is a high-risk challenge. All parties are investing in the development. The growers do so as a collective and that makes it extra special: about half of Dutch tomato acreage is involved in the development of the deleafing robot. The development is further made possible thanks to a number of subsidy regulations and both local and national sponsors.

    In addition to the investment agreements it has been agreed within the joint venture that revenues from this development flow back with profitability to all investors. Exchanging know-how is an important element for bringing the development to a successful outcome. Thus the growers, for example, are playing a crucial role in guaranteeing the practical applicability of the robot.

    State of affairs

    Over the course of time various designs have been developed and tested. One important milestone was the time at which actual leaves could be removed from a plant with a test model. It represented impressive performance, however, the cutting quality and speed of the test model were still too low to be able to be economically viable.

    A successful test model however still does not equate to a successful product. It was necessary to adapt the design. Following some preparatory research and a second test model, a prototype was developed with the potential to be both technically and economically successful. This prototype was extensively tested in practical conditions. Important parameters such as cutting quality, speed and effectiveness now meet expectations. As a result the project has moved into the next phase: Currently an initial production series of the deleafing robot is being built by manufacturer, VDL, on behalf of Priva. These first robots will be deployed amongst a number of participating growers this year.

     


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