As farm and food businesses increasingly encounter labour disruptions, criticisms regarding the practicality of adopting automation technology are being raised – specifically, how transformative it can be if incorporators can’t access support when needed.
In the case of Canada’s agriculture sector, some say localised expertise and connectivity need to be advanced as much as equipment design. Whether in the dairy barn or vegetable greenhouse, new systems require service, repair, and a proven track record showing they contribute to one’s return on investment, says Tyler Whale, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies – an organisation supporting agri-tech commercialisation, development, and research within the Canadian province.
The issue for many primary producers and secondary processors, he says, is a significant portion of currently available automation technology still comes, by in large, from continental Europe. The technology might be excellent, but experts need to be flow-in (if diagnoses and solutions can’t be made from a distance) to help fix things when problems arise – as they inevitably do.
“Depending on where it’s been developed first, we might not have the skills to support new tech,” says Whale. “Plus, this stuff is expensive. Farmers are business people. Tech gets adopted into agriculture very slowly because you have to displace something that’s already working and they trust.”
Hussam Haroun, director of automation for the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre – an Ontario institution focused on tech-development and marketing in the indoor agriculture sector – says the lack of domestic expertise is one of the reasons people partner with Vineland to develop new tech-solutions.
Another reason, however, is to ensure their tech-investment dollars go towards machines and techniques that serve their specific needs (e.g. Dutch-designed systems for growing greenhouse strawberries don’t work optimally in the Canadian climate without adaptations).
“From a Vineland point of view, we’ve been spending a lot of time on robotics and machine learning in order to better interact with the environment,” says Haroun, specifically in reference to an ongoing project to develop an autonomous mushroom harvesting machine for local growers.
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Devolving research and development to the producer level is another issue. Karen Hand, director of agriculture data research strategy at the University of Guelph and owner of a farm data consultant group, says automation technologies are often not well-matched to differing objectives and conditions between businesses.
This means food producers and processors see increased costs in calibrating and refining automation systems. This lowers overall return on investment and slows adoption as pieces are individually adopted, rigorously verified, and altered as necessary.
“I’m not convinced farmers or industry understand how to, or how often, technologies need to be calibrated, if the calibration itself is valid or if it can even be accomplished,” says Hand.
A robot meant to pick rocks should be able to do other things. Cutting grass, moving supplies, things like that
Whale and Hand both say the singular-dimentional nature of automation technologies (e.g. comparatively slow and expensive weed robots) only exacerbates the lack of automation in some parts of the sector. “A robot meant to pick rocks should be able to do other things. Cutting grass, moving supplies, things like that,” says Whale.
The lack of connectivity between technologies via the Internet of Things is another problem, according to Hand. This stems, in part, from variations in interoperability standards for agricultural data, creating a situation where technology can only be adopted by the task.
A more systems-level approach, she says, would deliver greater return on investment. For example, something like the GS1 standards used in the global healthcare sector could be applied to Identity Preserved soybeans to reduce issues in the grain supply chain.
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The same could be said for biosecurity and employee health through the Ontario-developed “Tactical Response Against COVID-19 Epidemic” (TRACE) system, where RFID sensors, carried by employees while at work, map movements and contacts. In this way, only part of a given business would have to be shut-down in case of a major health issue.
“We really need to take more of a systems-view of how technologies are working. We need concerted leadership to look at the entire system and help implement technologies post-COVID,” says Hand. Whale agrees, saying such insights on the farm will be “extremely practical.” However, he also reiterates the elephant in the room is the lack of general internet connectivity.
Indeed, many Canadian farmers and other businesses still do not have adequate internet access. It’s a fact brought into increasingly stark relief as the current pandemic continues restricting person-to-person interaction across the country, and one increasingly mentioned in demands for infrastructure reform.