Former iRobot employees cultivate new idea

Harvest Automation's agricultural robots could help growers get organized and save on manual labor costs.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
4 min read
Growers spend a lot of time and manual labor keeping pots in line as they grow. Harvest Automation

At a meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum on July 30, a company that includes two former iRobot employees announced that it's developing an autonomous robot capable of...organizing potted plants.

While that may sound like a strange and fruitless project to spend years working on, the robot actually fulfills an industry need that could end up making their Groton, Mass.-based company a lot of green, Harvest Automation CTO Joe Jones and CEO Charles Grinnell told me in a phone interview. (The company earlier was known as Q Robotics.)

Where's the big business in potted plants? Everything from conifers that grow in your yard to office houseplants are often started and grown in those same plastic pots you buy them in at the garden store or home repair center.

"You go into a garden store and see all these plants sitting around in pots. Somewhere out in the U.S. they have large farms with acres and acres of plants in pots," said Jones.

Space is a large preoccupation for growers. Too little space between potted plants and the plants grow into each other or develop black spots as they mature, making them unsellable, said Grinnell.

Harvest Automation

If too much space is left between them from the start, land or greenhouse space is wasted. And because many growers use sprinkler systems, fertilizer and water that falls into the gaps is also wasted, and that wastes growers' money. Growers also want to minimize the amount of fertilizer seeping into the ground and from there into water supply, said Jones.

Currently growers use manual labor with sticks and ropes to rotate the pots and measure the space between them as the plants grow.

The autonomous robot is about two years away from being commercially available, but the current prototype can pick up potted plants between 1 and 3 gallons in size. The waterproof and sun-proof robot can carry the pots around and line them up in organized grids based on a grower's specifications.

Harvest Automation's robots have global awareness through beacons placed around the perimeter of a given area, and communicate the way the iRobot Roomba communicates with beacons that tell it which rooms to vacuum. While the battery technology has not yet been decided, the types of batteries the company is looking at would allow the robots to work for up to 8 hours and take about 4 hours to recharge.

Sounds interesting, but what would make anyone wake up one morning and decide they're going to make little robots that move potted plants?

Harvest Automation

Jones, who was a senior roboticist at iRobot and helped invent the original Roomba vacuum cleaner, and Grinnell, who has a background in medical devices, have developed their business model the old-fashioned way. Along with their chief roboticist, Paul Sandin (also a former iRobot employee) and Clara Vu, a specialist in robotics software, the group decided to develop technology to fulfill a need rather than figuring out what to do with a cool invention.

Jones and Grinnell, who are still seeking funding to bring their robots into production, had three criteria for evaluating what was a viable idea.

"The biggest challenge in building a practical robot is finding an application with three characteristics--something people really want; something robots can do in the near term; something, which if we do build a robot to do it, can be cost-competitive with whatever the existing solution is," said Jones.

People say they would love a robot that could do windows, but what they don't understand is that the technology needed for that is completely different than the technology for cleaning floors, Jones explained.

Jones and Grinnell went to trade shows in industries they thought might benefit from robotic help.

"Before the trade show we had no idea that people even had that need," said Jones.

The two executives also say they have industry backing for the robot, which would boost the potential for the agro-bots to become commercially viable. The company is working with the research branch of the American Nursery and Landscaping Association (ANLA), as well as leading growers in the U.S.

"We've been all over the country. There is a network of the leading top 20 growers in the country. We went and visited about 15 of them and have partnerships with 10 or 12 right now," said Grinnell.

Harvest Automation is in the process of setting up field tests (literally) with some of those growers to get further feedback on the robot's functionality.

What Jones and Grinnell don't mention is that their invention could also help growers concerned about a lack of available human labor for this job in view of proposed H-2B visa regulations and enforcement for seasonal guest workers.

According to a document submitted by the ANLA and the Professional Landcare Network to the Department of Labor on July 8, the proposed statutory limit of 66,000 H-2B visas per year falls far short of what the industry believes its members need.

If Harvest Automation's robots can work as Jones and Grinnell say they will, they could help growers deal with the anticipated labor shortage, should the new H-2B law pass.