Among the technology options to advance crop harvesting technology, we have identified the following categories: collaborative, indoor automated platforms, and outdoor automated platforms. Small and midsized players lead innovation efforts across the space, but corporate players and research institutes remain invested in advancing the automation of outdoor harvesting technologies. To get a comprehensive overview of the technology landscape and distribution of players, we analyzed key developers with historical patent activity, academic publications, early-stage funding, and ongoing projects. This information serves to define future trends and, more importantly, helps identify opportunities for those seeking to engage with and enter the market.
Outdoor advanced harvesting technologies dominate innovation interest.
Technologies targeting the advancement of outdoor harvesting receive the majority of innovation resources. Of the 71 unique organizations identified, more than two-thirds have engaged in development opportunities targeting outdoor harvesting. This result should not come as a surprise, as the scale of outdoor crop production dwarfs that of indoor production, even as indoor crop production continues to increase in scale. This scale and distributed nature of outdoor crop production requires significant time and labor investment, which is a key pain point and driver for these technologies. The more interesting result is that Asia-Pacific is driving a significant portion of innovation, with corporate, SME, and research institutes all engaging strongly. Lux explored this trend further in our 2020 report "Beyond Made in China 2025: China's Move up the Global Innovation Value Chain." Agricultural optimization and modernization is a key innovation area for the region, especially as food security has taken a central role in many national innovation strategies.
SMEs are the central driver of advanced harvesting diversification.
SMEs make up half of the organizations investing in advanced harvesting development. While corporations and research institutes also contribute to the area, the involvement of these organizations remains focused. For instance, large corporations focus on solutions that complement existing harvesting equipment (i.e., grain harvesting). Similarly, research organizations target crops that have a significant regional impact. Research institutes focusing outside of grain, such as the University of Florida or Washington State University, target fruits that are critically important to regional economies, such as apple, grape, and citrus. Therefore, the players likely to offer innovations that improve the diversity of available technologies will be SMEs.
Collaborative players generate interest for labor-intensive crops.
Collaborative solutions focus on enabling existing workflows rather than disrupting how global crop harvesting takes place, as in the case of automated indoor and outdoor solutions. For instance, Dynium and Augean Robotics (now known as Burro) provide solutions that enable laborers to move harvested crops to aggregation areas rather than replacing harvesters altogether. For crops that are notoriously easy to damage during harvest, such as berries, these solutions increase the efficiency of dexterous workers. Burro will reach the market in 2020. Dynium expands the use case of its collaborative robot by including sensing and analytics to inform harvesting activities. Expect these solutions to gain momentum, as hurdles remain for completely automated harvesting systems.
Automated indoor solutions require crop development for success.
A number of solutions developing automated harvesting systems are under development, but crop attributes are driving success. The most successful automated harvesting systems developed to date are those targeting leafy green production. The discrete nature of production for each plant in these systems as well as the warehouse-like structure enables technologies like machine vision and robotics to be employed successfully. RoBotany, 80 Acres Farms, and Iron Ox all demonstrate this significant advantage. Players focused on automating indoor vegetable or fruit harvesting must solve a range of other challenges. Players like Sweeper were able to develop a solid prototype; however, picking success often tops out at 50% efficiency, meaning that laborers are still required. Contributing to this data point are factors including detection of ripeness, unique harvesting challenges for each group, accurate differentiation of leaves from fruit, and cropping systems not developed with robotics in mind. Despite these challenges, advances in robotic harvesting will continue as the indoor production capacity of vegetables expands.
Automated outdoor harvesting solutions are diverse.
While indoor and collaborative advanced harvesting solutions target very specific niches, outdoor solutions range from sod to asparagus to grains to apples. Players within the space do not take such a diverse approach, instead selecting a specific target crop. This strategy is telling of the difficult nature of automated harvesting. Each crop has specific needs. For instance, fruits, vegetables, and berries often require accurate positioning and a gentle picking apparatus, whereas asparagus and sod require limited machine vision of the crop and row positioning. Large equipment manufacturers will continue to drive innovation for grains while specialty crop producers and distributors inject funding across solutions for diverse crop types.
Overall, advanced harvesting solutions will continue to generate momentum. Expect regions like Asia to drive incremental improvements in grain harvesting while the Americas and EMEA drive innovation closer to complete automation in the same. Innovation in the Americas and EMEA will drive indoor innovation as vertical agriculture aims to achieve scale. Asia will also contribute, with nations like China, Japan, and Singapore leading the way. Collaborative robots will continue to be applied in niche circumstances, but expect these solutions to become platforms capable of completing a range of tasks rather than just moving harvested products from point A to point B. Companies should focus their interest with a crop and cropping system in mind, as these attributes will most likely outline the solutions with the best chance of success.