Photograph by Getty Images
By Jonathan Vanian
February 1, 2016

The next frontier for robots could be farms.

A Japanese agriculture technology company called SPREAD said on Monday that it plans to open a big, robot-run lettuce farm by mid-2017. The farm will use robots to handle almost every farming task related to growing and producing the crops, including watering seedlings and harvesting the lettuce.

The only thing the robots won’t do is plant the seeds, according to report from Agence France-Presse. A spokesperson for SPREAD told the news agency that an all-robot farm team will cut in half the company’s personnel costs.

The farm is actually a 47,300 square feet indoor facility that’s essentially a giant grow house and an extension to the company’s current indoor farming plant. That farm produces 21,000 lettuce heads each day that get shipped to roughly 2,000 Japanese supermarket, according to the company’s website.

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After the new robots and related automation technologies come online, SPREAD said it will be able to produce 30,000 lettuce heads per day. Within five years, the company hopes it will be able to produce 500,000 lettuce heads each day.

Pictures of the farm resemble a biologist’s laboratory rather than a traditional outdoor farm, with multiple rows of shelving containing lettuce heads that are placed throughout a big open space.

After seeds have germinated, cranes will automatically hand off the seedlings to small custom designed robotic arms that are supposed to handle the plants without ruining them, according to a Fast Company article last year about the upcoming facility. The robots then transplant the seedlings into their grow beds, where machinery ensures that the right levels of temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, and other metrics are being applied.

The system is similar to how various industrial manufacturers have been upgrading their factories to be more efficient. For example, GM (gm) recently renovated some of its car-manufacturing plants so that robots, temperature equipment, and other machinery are all linked to a cloud-computing network. GM said that the connected factory lets it better track when machinery fails as well as ensure the correct levels of humidity when its robots need to apply paint to vehicles.

 

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Japan’s new automated indoor farm comes at a time when the country has been dealing an aging workforce. The new farm and its robot technology is an example of how some Japanese companies have been developing machinery to handle routine tasks that elderly workers may have trouble performing.

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