22 July 2021
Smart technology is becoming increasingly important in horticulture. So important, in fact, that Ridder predicts that in ten years’ time smart technology and systems will be doing most of the work inside the greenhouse. The age of the autonomous greenhouse is on its way, enabling growers to focus on the higher-level decisions.
This is Ridder’s vision for the future of horticulture, says Joep van den Bosch, Chief Innovation Officer (CIO). ‘Helping you to grow your way’ is Ridder’s brand promise, and that really means something. We offer them products like screen fabrics and water units. But in the future, our services will focus increasingly on ‘growing as a service’. That means offering a comprehensive package of products and services to lighten the workload in the greenhouse.’
‘It will mean that we provide technology and smart solutions to resolve key issues around limited knowledge and the scarcity of labour. We hope that this will make an important contribution to achieving the autonomous greenhouse.’
Using data in a smarter way
The autonomous greenhouse will not just happen of its own accord, of course. Joep predicts that four key technologies will be needed in order for greenhouses to become fully autonomous. ‘The first essential technology is data analytics and cloud management. Data from the greenhouse – such as data on production and climate conditions – needs to be recorded securely and made available. This is crucial so that we can automate other processes in the greenhouse. The HortOS data platform, with its options for collecting data and sending feedback directly to the climate computer, has an important role to play in this.’
In addition, Joep predicts that visual technology – or ‘growers eyes’ – will also be needed. ‘At the moment, growers need to be physically present in order to assess their crops properly and make the right decisions – decisions about climate strategy, for instance. But this could also be done automatically using camera systems. These will track the growth and progress of the plants.’
High level of knowledge
Joep realizes that these developments will be far from simple to achieve. ‘There are certain barriers that we’ll need to break through. Growers have a huge amount of knowledge. It won’t be easy to replicate that with cameras and smart programs.’
The third technology is artificial intelligence. ‘That actually brings together the first two technologies. It means analysing the collected data and using it to make decisions and come up with solutions. The connected systems will communicate with each other using smart algorithms.’
Using AI, the systems will be able to achieve the best possible climate inside the greenhouse completely independently. They will be able to decide exactly when the temperature needs to go up a notch, or when extra ventilation is required.
The fourth and final technology that Joep identifies is greenhouse robotics. ‘A lot of the physical activities in the greenhouse, like picking and packaging, will be automated. We already have a lot of basic technology for this, but it’s not all widely used in horticulture yet.’ There’s a lot we need to do before growers can really start growing autonomously. ‘Companies in the sector will have to work more closely with suppliers and involve growers in this. Significant investments will also be required.’ And the role of growers will change, too. ‘They will become more like managers, overseeing all the processes and systems and taking a helicopter view. At the moment, they need to take every small decision themselves. But that will no longer be necessary – automated systems will take care of most of that.’
Sponsoring the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge
Based on its vision of horticulture, Ridder is sponsoring the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge organized by Wageningen University & Research (WUR). ‘It’s important for us to promote this vision and to develop partnerships, and that’s why we are sponsoring this challenge. I saw what an impact the first two editions of the challenge had. They genuinely created more awareness and acceptance. Some new companies have also emerged. We’re delighted to be contributing to these developments.’
The development of autonomous growing will influence the products and services that Ridder offers. ‘I expect we’ll move to offering clients more than just individual products or components. They are likely to be integrated and merged into all-in-one systems. And I also think that we’ll be offering our products and services more as a package or in the form of a subscription. So instead of growers purchasing individual products, they will purchase integrated packages, and perhaps even ‘lease’ the hardware. That will make it easier to tailor the system to their needs and to make changes as those needs develop. It will help growers to scale up quicker, and they will always be working with the very latest equipment.’
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