Automation Shaping The Future Of Urban Farming

Monday, December 13th, 2021

By James McKew, Regional Director Asia-Pacific Universal Robots

Food security is a perennial concern for Singapore, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Although Singapore has never been an agricultural nation, the government strives to address food security concerns in 2021 by ramping up local produce through innovative means. Singapore set a 30 percent target to meet Singapore’s nutritional needs while buffering any food supply disruptions by 2030* through urban farming and argri-tech. What kind of technologies can be leveraged on? These would include artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and collaborative robots (cobots).

Singapore has upped the ante to aid urban farming. The Budget 2021 introduces an initiative to set aside S$60 million for a new Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund*. The fund aids local farmers to adopt technology, fostering growth in the agricultural sector. Living in the era of automation and AI has also brought about a heightening interest in food technology and agri-tech. Moving forward, agri-tech and automation will be prominent in Singapore’s agricultural sector to boost productivity.

Introducing Cobots To Agriculture

Farmers may traditionally be resistant to advanced technologies and automation, and prefer traditional methods instead. To many, automation may mean traditional industrial robots, which are expensive to purchase, inflexible, space-hogging, and often require robotic engineers for programming and maintenance.

However, there are robots that are more adaptable to urban farming purposes. Cobots are versatile and flexible, are designed to work alongside human workers, and can relieve repetitive tasks such as manual pollination so that humans can take on better roles that tap on cognitive and social abilities. Already, farmers and food producers are reaping the benefits of cobots to increase productivity and efficiency in many locales. 

Augmentus, a leader in easy-to-use and rapid AI-robotics software and a systems integration partner for Universal Robots (UR), has worked together with agri-tech companies in the region to propel the adoption of robots in urban farms. For instance, they have worked with Singrow, a developer of innovative agri-tech solutions for producing fruits and vegetables, to automate pollination and harvesting in their strawberry farming through the Augmentus platform. Augmentus aims to revolutionise the future of industrial automation by offering a code-free robotic automation platform, enabling anyone without robots or programming skills to easily develop, deploy and re-purpose robotic systems within minutes. Augmentus partners with Universal Robots, Denmark-based cobots technology market leader with global presence, to help businesses like Singrow lower time, costs, and skill barriers while delivering a rapid return on investment (ROI).

Singrow’s Pollination Challenge

According to Timothy Chua, Business Development Director of Singrow, traditional automation technologies tend to be more applicable in large-scale operations where automated tractors and drones are commonly utilised to enhance efficiency and boost productivity. However, indoor or urban farms such as Singrow, are not suitable candidates for such large-scale automation technologies. Singrow’s conventional means of pollination were done by hand rather than bees, which would be prone to human errors.

Effective Pollination Through Cobots

Singrow needed something that would alleviate human errors and improve productivity. They came to know about the UR3 cobot, adapted with a camera that would identify flowers using Augmentus’ integrated AI technology for effective pollination once the on-board camera identifies the flowers. Additionally, with the use of cameras or infrared scanners, the UR3 cobot is programmed to pick out ripe strawberries. The incorporation of Augmentus’s AI model and custom-fitted UR3 cobot have allowed for effective harvesting and pollination systems, further enriching Singrow’s plant science ecosystem. 

With local farmers demanding a soft touch to handle delicate flowers and fruits or robots to work closely alongside human workers, Universal Robots is revolutionising processes in urban farming. Cobots have made dramatic inroads for these processes, giving agriculture the advantages of optimised production and the opportunity to free human workers for more exciting tasks. Unlike traditional robots that are large and bulky, cobots are ideal for manufacturers like Singrow who require delicate and precise handling. As a pioneer in the cobots market, Universal Robots ensures that manufacturers need not worry about the unintuitive programming of robots since cobots are easy to implement, operate and maintain. UR’s partnership with Augmentus has proven that robotics can be operated seamlessly and further allowing for fast deployment in all applications.

*References available upon request




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