Japan is getting older, and the country’s low birth rate is struggling to fill the labor gap left by its aging population. Several companies are using novel approaches to deal with labor shortages such as a “robot farm” where most of the work that goes into growing lettuce is done by industrial machines.
According to Spread, a vegetable producer, robots will take care of every task needed to grow lettuce other than actually planting the seeds. This means that the robot farmers will be doing everything from watering the plants, to trimming and re-planting seedlings. The Guardian reported on Feb. 2, that the company hopes to roll-out their automaton workforce at its massive indoor lettuce farm by mid-2017.
The firm hopes that the shift to robot farmers will improve output from 21,000 heads of lettuce a day to nearly 50,000. But the group has even bigger plans, expecting to increase the output to more than half a million heads of lettuce by 2021. “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 Spread’s global marketing manager J.J. Price.
While it might seem highly unnatural to have robots grow lettuce in a giant indoor farm, the new facility will actually be highly positive for the environment. LED lighting in the new farm will slash power costs by nearly a third, and 98 percent of the water used to grow the crops will be recycled. The lettuce, which is grown without pesticides, will also contain a higher amount of beta-carotene, an antioxidant, than any other grown lettuce.
Spread is hoping to put facilities like the one in Kameoka all over the Japan, and eventually move 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,” said Price.
However, anyone imagining C-3PO in overalls will be disappointed by what the farming robots actually look like. Spread pointed out that their robots look more like conveyer belts with automated arms that can transfer seedlings. The whole farm facility is also part of an automated system which can do everything from controlling the temperature, humidity and CO2 levels to sterilizing water and adjusting light sources.
The need for robot farms in Japan is not driven by the country’s ongoing love for robots, though that may have contributed, but instead by a wider demographic crisis. For example, the average age of a farmer in Japan in 2011 was 65.9. As you might expect for an industry where the average worker is past the age of retirement, the number of full-time farmers in Japan is plummeting. As of 2014 there are 1.7 million full-time farmers in Japan, down from 2.2 million a decade earlier.
With everything from a “muscle suit” that can help lift heavy weight, to a robot from Panasonic that uses a camera and image sensor to select and pick ripe tomatoes, Japan is seeing a lot of jobs being eyed for robotic replacement.