Harvest Automation Robot

Using Robots in Horticulture


Harvest Automation's flagship product is designed to perform material handling tasks in unstructured, outdoor environments such as those typically found in commercial growing operations. The robots work safely alongside humans and require minimal training to operate, while vastly reducing production costs and improving productivity. They will reduce direct labor headcount and costs while enabling efficiency initiatives such as resource management, just in time production, and inventory control. The principal features and functions offered in the first product release include:


Harvest has developed a new approach to automating a variety of traditionally manual labor tasks based on mobile robot technology. Teams of small, highly intelligent machines work safely with laborers to perform the most physically demanding parts of these tasks, and at a significantly reduced cost.

Behavior Based Robots

Our intelligent, behavior-based approach to automation provides a scalable and robust system architecture for robots that enables them to operate in even the most challenging environments. Harvest's highly adaptable, behavior-based platform responds immediately to changes in the work environment, intelligently accounts for imperfect sensory data, and requires little setup and no programming.

Sensor Technology

Harvest's robots incorporate simple, highly reliable local sensing technologies that do not depend on a global model of their environment. This translates into:

System Design & Architecture

Careful engineering and attention to our customers needs in the development stage has produced a versatile, rugged solution designed to work hard in real world environments. Our approach has produced the optimal result for our customers by providing equipment that is:

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Ten years ago the Horticulture Research Institute took a crack at automating nurseries, said Demaline. "The whole concept there was building a bigger machine to do the process, but it just never worked that well," he said. When Harvest Automation showed Demaline it's small mobile robots, the lightbulb went on, he said. "It was stark simplicity," he said. "The robots were more adaptable to a wider range of growing areas."

Small mobile robots that tend crops are just emerging, and most of the action is in produce. Row crops provide a semi-structured environment, and several companies are marketing four-wheeled robots with computer vision systems that monitor and in some cases tend to crops. The most advanced are medium-sized strawberry-picking robots, notably a machine from Spanish firm AgroBot. One player in the nursery automation market is British firm CMW Horticulture Ltd., which sells a medium-sized pesticide-spraying robot for greenhouses and nurseries.

The Harvest Automation robots are knee-high, wheeled machines. Each robot has a gripper for grasping pots, a deck for carrying pots, and an array of sensors to keep track of where it is and what's around it. Teams of robots zip around nursery fields, single-mindedly spacing and grouping plants. Think Wall-E without the doe eyes and cuddly personality, or the little forest-tending 'bots in the 1972 sci-fi classic Silent Running.

Checklist for robotic survival

By: Mark T. Hoske
Source: Control Engineering

Robot designers who ignore one or more of three principles are doomed to fail, according to a roboticist with 22 patents who has worked for three robot companies and MIT Robotic Lab. Joseph L. Jones, co-founder and chief technology officer, Harvest Automation, told attendees at the Robotics Industries Forum about a checklist for robot survival.

Joseph L. Jones, co-founder and chief technology officer, Harvest Automation, gave Robotics Industry Forum attendees his checklist for robot survival. CFE Media photo by Mark T. Hoske

"How are robots like sea turtles? For each 1,000 sea turtles hatched, only one lasts to adulthood. It's about the same statistic for robots. Robot designers need to be really careful in choosing which robots to build," Jones said. He also worked at iRobot (which has sold 9 million Roomba robotic vacuums) and at Denning Mobile Robotics. In 30 years of watching the robotic industry, he's observed three key elements that need to be present with any robot project for success.

To create a successful robot, Jones said the robot should:

  1. Do something that lots of people want done
  2. Be built with existing technology, and
  3. Be cost-competitive with current solutions.
While this seems perfectly logical, when in the thick of things, roboticists usually ignore one and often all three, Jones said, in his 30 years of observations. In his talk, "Small Mobile Robots for Agriculture," Jones discussed his current efforts at Harvest Automation, founded in 2007, now with 40 employees. He's making robots for agriculture. A nursery and greenhouse (N&G) robot is the company's first product.

Plants sold in garden stores often are grown in pots in open fields that extend to the horizon. Armies of hard-to-find workers manually space pots in the field after the pots are unloaded from wagons.

Six systems challenge mobile robots

With any mobile robotic design, there are six system challenge areas: application system (sensors, actuators, and software), navigation, hazards, mobility, power, and the interface. (For the HV-100 the application system consists of the gripper, the laser ranger that identifies the pots, and the software associated with pickup and putdown, he said.)

Application notes: N&G work involves a lot of pain, with repetitive heavy lifting, Jones said; required seasonal labor is scarce and 80% undocumented. It's also inefficient, Jones noted. For this project, no research grants were needed. Picking up the pot required a one-degree-of-freedom manipulator. No GPS or cameras are used. A sensor consisting of a pair of photo diodes is used to find the yellow tape border guide; an off-the-shelf range sensor locates the pots. No inter-robot communication is needed to grab a pot and add it to the pattern in order. Batteries require a swap in 3-5 hours, depending on plant weight and terrain conditions.

Three years of development has led to the delivery of the first products to a customer in Georgia. A robot supervisor adjusts the user interface when needed and moves the boundary marker. Beyond placement, future capabilities will accommodate plant maintenance, putting the pot into a booth for grading, pruning, and targeted application of insecticide or nutrients (avoiding risk of human contact with whirling blades or hazardous chemicals).