Smart agriculture is increasingly being employed in Japan, arousing expectations that producers will be able to entrust artificial intelligence with more labor-intensive tasks to alleviate severe manpower shortages.
Large-scale greenhouse farmers are leading the way, having begun to use AI-equipped robots developed by venture businesses in ways that seem, more or less, to change the future shape of cultivating and harvesting agricultural products.
In September, a four-wheeled AI robot slowly rolled through the lush green leaves of a plastic greenhouse at a farm in Hanyu, Saitama Prefecture, eastern Japan, gathering only the ripest cucumbers.
"We were initially afraid that the robot might cut off the cucumber stems, but it moves accurately," said Takeshi Yoshida, head of the farm called Takamiya No Aisai. "We expect much out of the robot now that labor is in such short supply."
The firm is operated by a subsidiary of Takamiya Co., which manages agricultural greenhouses and other facilities, while the robot was developed by startup Agrist Inc. and uses a camera and AI to determine if it is the right time to harvest crops.
The farm leased the automated cucumber harvester from Agrist, which has been developing harvesting robots since its founding in 2019 in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Miyazaki.
Takamiya No Aisai is the first farm to lease one from Agrist and the robot checks the size of cucumbers based on images it captures from a camera mounted on the robot, recognizing ripe ones and cutting off one to three spheres roughly every two minutes before placing them in a case.
The robot also accurately positions its arm vis-a-vis cucumbers so as to avoid damaging their stems.
The startup hopes that, with more success, other farms will adopt systems of this kind.
Inaho Inc., an agricultural venture company in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo, has leased an AI-equipped robot to a farm in the Netherlands. It can automatically pick cherry tomatoes in bunches or individually, depending on the mechanism employed.
The AI analyses images and selects multiple tomatoes that are ripe and easy to pick before the robot uses its arm to harvest them. As tomatoes bunch around the leaves and stems, harvesting robots require a complicated mechanism, making it costly when developing ones that can carry out the entire process.
Inaho has therefore developed a robot that reaps some 40 percent of matured tomatoes at night and leaves the rest for harvesting by humans during the daytime.
Starting with the Netherlands, which is an agri-food powerhouse, Inaho hopes to export its smart agriculture technology around the world.
"Although more time is needed to let robots harvest all crops, those currently available can sufficiently support farms with labor shortages," said Soya Oyama, chief operating officer at Inaho. The company has also developed a robot to harvest asparagus and plans to begin leasing the machines in fiscal 2025.
Japan is looking at a new frontier, suggests Takanori Fukao, professor of robotics at the University of Tokyo.
"Starting with greenhouse cultivation where harvesting robots can move easily, examples of its introduction to open-field cultivation are likely to increase," Fukao said.
"In the future, in order to make full use of robots, it's likely that farms will have to be prepared by taking into account the placement of crops in advance, for instance," he said.