Robot-run farm to take root in Japan next year

A worker in the indoor farm of Spread in Kameoka city, Kyoto prefecture. Switching to robot labour is expected to chop personnel costs by about half and cut energy expenses by nearly one third.
A worker in the indoor farm of Spread in Kameoka city, Kyoto prefecture. Switching to robot labour is expected to chop personnel costs by about half and cut energy expenses by nearly one third.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Indoor facility to be fully automated, with robots handling almost everything from watering seedlings to harvesting

TOKYO • A Japanese firm has said it would open the world's first fully automated farm with robots handling almost every step of the process, from watering seedlings to harvesting crops.

Kyoto-based Spread said the indoor grow-house will start operating by the middle of next year and produce 30,000 heads of lettuce a day. It hopes to boost that figure to half a million lettuce heads daily within five years.

The farm, measuring about 4,400 sq m, will have floor-to-ceiling shelves where the produce is grown. It will be an upgrade to Spread's existing indoor farm in the Kameoka city.

"Seed planting will still be done by people, but the rest of the process, including harvesting, will be done (by industrial robots)," company official Koji Morisada told Agence France-Presse.

Instead of humanoid robots roaming the halls, Spread's robot workers will "look more like conveyor belts with arms", according to digital publication Tech Insider.

The move to robot labour would chop personnel costs by about half and knock energy expenses down by nearly one third, Mr Morisada added. The pesticide-free lettuce will also have more beta carotene than other farm-grown lettuce, the company said.

Automated workers are fulfilling an increasingly broad range of roles in Japan as the robot-obsessed country repeatedly turns to them to fill labour shortages that are projected to get worse as the country rapidly ages.

Robot-obsessed Japan repeatedly turns to automated workers to fill labour shortages that are projected to get worse as the country rapidly ages.

Toshiba Corp last year installed a female robot called Chihira Junko at a commercial complex in Tokyo which provides information on tourist facilities and other subjects in Japanese, English or Chinese when users operate an input screen.

Department store chain operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings is currently studying how to introduce information clerk robots at its stores. Its vision is to let robots take orders, fetch goods and talk to customers, while having human sales staff focus on other areas of work, such as explaining to customers product information in great detail. As an initial step, it plans to have robots handle reception services and inquiries at stores in central Tokyo within the next few years.

The Nomura Research Institute has indicated the possibility that about half of Japan's labour force could be replaced by robots or artificial intelligence within the next 10 to 20 years, particularly jobs such as supermarket checkouts or cleaning.

According to market research company Fuji Keizai, the scale of the humanoid robot market is expected to grow rapidly, from 1.7 billion yen (S$20 million) in 2014 to 24 billion yen in 2020.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2016, with the headline 'Robot-run farm to take root in Japan next year'. Print Edition | Subscribe