Spread, a vegetable producer, said industrial robots would carry out all but one of the tasks needed to grow the tens of thousands of lettuces it produces each day at its vast indoor farm in Kameoka, Kyoto prefecture, starting from mid-2017.
The robots will do everything from re-planting young seedlings to watering, trimming and harvesting crops.
The innovation will boost production from 21,000 lettuces a day to 50,000 a day, the firm said, adding that it planned to raise that figure to half a million lettuces daily within five years.
“The seeds will still be planted by humans, but every other step, from the transplanting of young seedlings to larger spaces as they grow to harvesting the lettuces, will be done automatically,” said JJ Price, Spread’s global marketing manager.
The new farm – an extension of its existing Kameoka farm – will improve efficiency and reduce labour costs by about half. The use of LED lighting means energy costs will be slashed by almost a third, and about 98% of the water needed to grow the crops will be recycled.
The farm, measuring about 4,400 sq metres, will have floor-to-ceiling shelves where the produce is grown.
The pesticide-free lettuces will contain more beta-carotene – an antioxidant – than other farm-grown lettuce, the company said.
It plans to build more robotic plant factories elsewhere in Japan and, eventually, overseas.“Our new farm could become a model for other farms, but our aim is not to replace human farmers, but to develop a system where humans and machines work together,” Price said. “We want to generate interest in farming, particularly among young people.”
Price said the introduction of robotics will enable the firm to increase production by an additional 30,000 heads of lettuce a day to 51,000 a day between its two farms.
The firm, which supply lettuces to about 2,000 supermarkets in Japan, was quick to point out that the robot farmers will not be androids dressed in waxed jackets and tweed caps. Instead, Spread’s machines look more like conveyer belts equipped with custom-made robotic arms that can transfer lettuce seedlings without harming them.
The automated system will not only handle lettuces, but will also control the temperature, humidity and CO2 levels, as well as sterilise water and control light sources.
Lettuce growing is not the only agricultural sector in Japan that is turning to robots to address a dwindling and ageing workforce.
The agricultural machinery firm Kubota is one of several Japanese companies that are developing “muscle suits” for use by care providers, factory workers and ageing farmers.
A robot developed by the firm Shibuya Seiki and the national agriculture and food research organisation can pick strawberries at the rate of one every eight seconds.
Last December, Panasonic began field tests of a robot that uses a camera and image sensor to detect ripe tomatoes on the vine, before picking them, without damaging them, at the rate of about one every 20 seconds.
Japan’s shrinking agricultural sector is a reflection of a wider demographic crisis, with the average age of the country’s farmers rising to 65.9 in 2011.
According to government figures, agriculture accounted for just 1.2% of Japanese gross domestic product in 2013, while the number of full-time farmers was 1.7 million in 2014, down from 2.2 million a decade earlier.
The Nomura Research Institute predicted in a recent report that nearly half of all jobs in Japan could be performed by robots by 2035, most likely in “non-creative” sectors such as customer service, goods delivery and agriculture.