The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Brandon Contino, co-founder and CEO of Four Growers, an agricultural robotics company based in Pennsylvania. Contino explained how automation can boost productivity, reduce operational costs, and promote sustainability in greenhouses.
Morgan Stevens: What inspired you to found Four Growers?
Brandon Contino: My co-founder and I wanted to improve the food system to create healthier, more sustainably grown produce for all. Originally, we were exploring building a vertical farm, but couldn’t build conviction in the near term on its economic viability when scaled to a larger market. Through this research, we learned about greenhouse farming, which has all the same benefits as vertical farming (90 percent less water, over 30 times higher land efficiency, local production, climate invariant, etc.) Once we learned about this style of growing, we started cold-calling greenhouse owners and operators to learn more about their operations and what was limiting them from scaling faster. From these conversations, they always said that labor was their number one issue. They couldn’t find people who wanted to work for more than eight hours per day on their feet in 100-degree heat anymore.
Given my background in computer vision, motion planning, and robotics, and my co-founder’s background in mechanical design, we realized that we had the skill sets and state-of-the-art knowledge to build a solution for their challenges, and we soon moved to the greenhouse and got to work.
Our initial focus in this sector centered on assisting growers in addressing labor shortages. However, as we delved deeper into the field, we discovered a multitude of other critical issues, including concerns about yield quality and quantity, water scarcity, and land efficiency. Recognizing that greenhouses represent the future of food production, we committed ourselves to building a company that focused on two key points: driving down growers’ operating costs while simultaneously making food more accessible in a sustainable manner.
Stevens: Can you explain how your autonomous harvesting robot works?
Contino: What’s truly remarkable about our harvesting system is its seamless integration with the existing greenhouse infrastructure. This means that many of our clients find themselves prepared for automated harvesting without even realizing it.
In the actual harvesting process, our platform leverages multiple stereo cameras to capture images of every plant from many different angles. This information is then fed into our proprietary AI that we’ve architected and trained, which identifies all the key attributes in the scene and classifies the fruit into different ripeness levels. Our custom motion planning algorithm then leverages this information to find the quickest, collision-free optimal paths to pick all the fruits in the scene. When a row is complete, an operator then moves the system to the next row and the process repeats. In the case of tomatoes, after each fruit is carefully picked, it makes its way through our processing system and is neatly stored in a mobile container, seamlessly integrated into our packing cart system. For each harvesting cycle, we can efficiently store up to 246 kilograms of tomatoes.
In addition, while the harvesting is taking place, we’re also gathering data for our customers at a level of granularity they’ve never had before. We can provide them information down to the square meter which enables them to achieve growing insights that they’ve never had access to before.
Stevens: What are the sustainability and environmental benefits of using automated solutions in greenhouse crop management?
Contino: By implementing automation, we address one of the key challenges faced by greenhouse growers: the risk of not picking ripe produce due to labor shortages. This results in a substantial reduction in resource wastage, including vital elements like water and nutrients, which are otherwise squandered in nurturing unharvested crops.
As we continue to build out our platform, not only do we enhance the efficiency of crop management, but we can also provide insights that lead to a considerable increase in yields. Simultaneously, it streamlines operational costs by mitigating wastage, preserving valuable resources, and reducing capital expenditure.
In essence, the integration of automation in greenhouse crop management aligns perfectly with our goal of promoting sustainability while boosting productivity, a significant win-win for both growers and the environment.
Stevens: What are the biggest challenges to automating harvesting vegetables?
Contino: Automating vegetable harvesting comes with numerous challenges. Perhaps the most significant challenge of all is the quest to create a harvesting process that is efficient and produce-friendly.
When we take a closer look, each plant variety introduces its unique set of challenges, encompassing growth patterns and the delicate nature of the produce. This calls for the development of a harvesting system tailored to every plant type and seed variation.
Developing an automation process also involves not only designing systems that adapt seamlessly to diverse crops but also infusing these systems with the knowledge and discernment to identify what to harvest, when to do so, and how to manage the entire process. This overall pursuit of precision is the biggest hurdle when you’re introducing automation within the greenhouse.
Stevens: How do you envision the future of agricultural robotics and automation, and what role will Four Growers play in shaping that future?
Contino: Over the next decade, we anticipate a surge in greenhouse farming and agricultural automation as they respond to market demands. More importantly, the farmers operating these facilities will increasingly seek innovative solutions that surpass manual processes, while also providing valuable data to optimize their production methods.
We see Four Growers as one of the core innovative companies that will drive market adoption through revolutionary products that help farmers meet those demands. Today, we’ve concentrated on the crucial areas of harvesting and analytics within facility operations, but we have ambitious plans to substantially broaden our capabilities. Our vision encompasses a holistic approach to farming, making it more efficient, data-driven, and accessible.