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Ward Simonton

The commercial greenhouse operation, with a controlled and structured environment and a large number of highly repetitive tasks, offers many advantages for automation relative to other segments of agriculture. Benefits and incentives to automate are significant and include improving the safety of the work force and the environment, along with ensuring sufficient productivity to compete in today's global market. The use of equipment and computers to assist production also may be particularly important in areas where labor costs and/or availability are a concern. However, automation for greenhouse systems faces very significant challenges in overcoming nonuniformity, cultural practice, and economic problems. As a case study, a robotic workcell for processing geranium cuttings for propagation has been developed. The robot grasps randomly positioned cuttings from a conveyor, performs leaf removal, trims the stems, and inserts the cuttings into plug trays. While the system has been shown to process effectively many plants automatically, the robot is not equipped to handle successfully the wide variety of cuttings that a trained worker handles with aplomb. A key challenge in greenhouse automation will be to develop productive systems that can perform in a reliable and cost-effective way with highly variable biological products.