Japan is betting robots could help alleviate a shortage of farmworkers that has been worsened by the pandemic.
A project team from Hokkaido University, Hokkaido Wine Co. and Toyota Tsusho Corp. began testing since November a golf cart-like autonomous robot in a vineyard run by Hokkaido Wine. The robot, which reuses a motor and battery from a Toyota Prius, has a front-mounted camera that takes pictures on both sides. Artificial intelligence (AI) is then applied to the images to interpret the growth status of the vines and determine the optimal amount of pesticide to be used.
The agricultural industry is stepping up its use of automation and robotics to replace aging labor and keep up with increased demand due to a growing global population.
Robots have been used in farming to automate repetitive tasks such as harvesting and picking, weed control, mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying and thinning, as well as sorting and packing.
According to the Yano Research Institute, the size of the market for smart agriculture in Japan in 2018 was about 14.1 billion yen ($136 million). The market is expected to grow to about 44.2 billion yen in 2025, spurred by more widespread use of drones.
"If we can automate relatively simple tasks that require a lot of manpower, we can greatly reduce the burden on the field,” Shin Noguchi, a professor at Hokkaido University in charge of the development of the robot, told the Nikkei Business Daily.
“If AI can make the best decisions based on data, the quality of pesticide spraying, which has to rely on the experience of skilled technicians, will be improved.”
Hokkaido boasts the largest area of vineyards in Japan and new wineries are springing up, due in part to global warming that has made the northern latitudes more suitable for planting grapes, as well as the rising popularity of Japanese wine.
However, many of the orchards are in remote, mountainous areas, making it difficult to attract local workers. Many of the vineyards must rely on overseas workers, most of whom have been barred from entering the country due to the pandemic.
The companies aim to commercialize the robotics system in two to three years. Once mass production is in sight, they will ask for cooperation from Toyota Motor Corp., Japan’s largest carmaker, according to the Nikkei Business Daily.