Horticulture also has its robot

It is called HORTObot and promises to help horticulture in the realization of new sustainable, zero-mile and welfare business models

Urban and peri-urban farms, new emerging models of city farming, corporate gardens, solidarity purchasing groups: these are the paradigms of production and consumption that are quietly making their way into agriculture, because they are able to respond to a need that, maybe thanks to the pandemic, has taken very clear shape and contours among consumers. Which is? To have a short food supply chain, with fresh vegetables picked at the right ripeness, which are not necessarily perfect in appearance but good to the taste; which is farm-to-table and not guilty of too many emissions due to transport from the production sites; which can also represent an alternative and unquestionably useful form of corporate welfare for everyone. A new business niche has thus been created for small and medium-sized companies that have seen in high quality and very often organic B2C horticulture, in the field or in greenhouses, a chance to assert themselves on the market and be competitive despite not being too big; or a chance to explore new business niches alongside their core business. This is, for example, the case of a cereal company in Valle d’Aosta which, at the request of its customers, has also started a small vegetable production. Or the case of the TESISQUARE company which, in its DIG421 Foundation in Cherasco (CN), started a company vegetable garden as a form of welfare for its employees. There is a common thread between these two apparently distant experiences, and it is that both exist thanks to the use of the HORTObot, an electric robot designed for small to medium-sized horticulture. In conversation with Roberto Minetto, President and Co-Founder of the company HORTObot


HORTObot, a robot with many functions

HORTObot is an autonomous, self-propelled, all-electric robot thanks to on-board batteries or the possibility of being powered by photovoltaic panels. Varying in length between 6 and 24 metres, it is equipped with tracks and can therefore move easily both in the greenhouse and in the field. The novelty of this machine? Definitely the target audience. Up to now we have described, also in the pages of this magazine, large robots dedicated to the processing of large spaces; very specific robots for valuable crops such as vineyards and orchards; specialized robots for certain horticultural crops (peppers, for example) and for certain operations. But HORTObot is different from all these solutions. HORTObot is dedicated to small to medium-sized horticulture; to multi-cropping and not necessarily only to mono-cropping as it is able to work rows of different crops at the same time. And above all, it is not specialized for a single horticultural species but can process all horticultural crops indifferently, with the only limitation of height. As Minetto explains: «Because of its structure, HORTObot can process all horticultural crops as long as they do not exceed 60-70 cm. For example, it is not suitable for harvesting tomatoes or climbing plants».

But the special features of the machine, which make it unique on the market, do not end there.

«HORTObot is a “cross action” machine, i.e. it is able to perform all the main operations required in horticulture: sowing and transplanting, soil aeration, tillage, irrigation, weeding, weeding, input feeding and harvesting. This is because

HORTObot is equipped with all the necessary tools to manage all the cycles of work in the fields». The robot consists of a wagon capable of moving autonomously along a field and a trolley installed on top of it, both moved with controlled speed and positions. The trolley houses the water tank and 8 nozzles that can be activated individually. The trolley is set up in a “factory” configuration with tools or sensors that can be lowered to ground level or raised to the rest position.


Focus on sustainability

HORTOBot combines cutting-edge technology and sustainable practices to ensure environmentally responsible and low-impact cultivation with rational use of primary resources such as water, energy and fertilizers, reducing waste and CO2 emissions. To reduce water consumption, it is equipped with an intelligent and precision irrigation system. The use of chemicals is also reduced for timely distribution of only the quantities required, promoting ecological balance, and increasing beneficial bacteria in the substrate, helping to improve plant health and product quality. Finally, soil conservation: the HORTObot is lighter than many traditional machines and this causes less soil compaction. The sustainability of the machine emerges from the different operations: the programmed application of precision irrigation cycles in relation to the plant’s vegetative cycle allows only the necessary amount of water to be delivered. Using the same principle, the system delivers fertilizer or plant protection treatments, and the method determines a drastic reduction in waste and a lower environmental impact.


Autonomous yet cooperative

Most operations are carried out by the machine autonomously. Only transplanting and harvesting take place in a collaborative manner, i.e. with the presence of an operator who “collaborates”  with the machine to allow the necessary care of very specific operations depending on the type of vegetable involved. All other operations take place in absolute independence: HORTObot allows the programming and control of cultivation activities remotely, facilitating their management and ensuring the traceability of all cultivation operations. HORTObot’s advanced sensor and programming system makes it possible to precisely control and monitor all cultivation activities, making them accessible even to people without specific agronomic skills. The software on board HORTObot allows a unique sequence of operations to be set and applied for each type of cultivation; the sequence can be predefined or set by the user and modified over time according to contingent conditions or historical data. In fact, HORTObot tracks all the operations that are recorded in the customer’s repository and the analysis of historical data allows precise evaluations to be performed and the best strategies to be planned. Manual control of the machine by the operator is always possible.


Why a new machine?

As we have seen, the features that make HORTObot new on the market are many. The machine responds to the needs of a new part of the market that is emerging and that looks at the short supply chain, product quality, production sustainability, multi-crop farming, and welfare. In companies serving this type of market, which demands variety, quality but not necessarily high production, robotics must be affordable in terms of technology, size and cost, and HORTObot, with its characteristics, meets these requirements. The machine is now at the end of its prototype phase and is expected to start commercialization in 2024. Want to see it at work? Go to the DIG421 Foundation in Cherasco, in the ‘Orto a Portata di Mano’: HORTObot has been working there for over two years. «The future will be a new model of mixed, sustainable, proximity agriculture based on precision robotics and data analysis. We are targeting the B2B market that responds to this model. All HORTObot solutions can be tailor-made and customized according to customer needs» Minetto concludes.


The “Orto a Portata di Mano” Project

There is a place in Cherasco (CN) that is becoming the hub of an innovation ecosystem that brings together companies, start-ups and institutions to create training, dissemination and discussion initiatives on topics of general interest in the field of innovation. Among the topics of interest: agrifood. The place is called Digital Innovation Gate – DIG421, a space of two thousand m2 born from an idea and a project by Giuseppe Pacotto, founder and CEO of TESISQUARE and his wife Marcella Brizio. A place that aims to become a reference point for the area, to promote innovation, knowledge sharing, digital skills, and related opportunities, both on new products and services and on new business models. «DIG421 was established two years ago as a non-profit, private foundation to create business initiatives for future generations. At the basis is the conviction that, by bringing together companies, start-ups, universities, etc. with ideas to implement or problems to tackle, it is possible to find new horizons, new business initiatives with the main objective that these remain here in the area, that they create jobs in these places, which are beautiful but a bit secluded compared to the main business routes» explains Elio Becchis, director of the DIG421 Foundation. He adds: «We feel like pioneers who have entered a forest and are trying to mark paths where no one has ever gone before».

After just two years from the Foundation, the results are already noticeable. There are already five projects “grounded” of which the “Orto a portata di mano” is one. «This project was launched in 2022 together with HORTObot, Meccanica 97, TESISQUARE Spa, with the primary objective of promoting environmental and economic sustainability, as well as improving corporate welfare. This collaboration involves the creation of a company vegetable garden equipped with HORTObot’s cutting-edge technology that allows TESISQUARE employees to grow and harvest zero-mile, organic, fresh, and healthy products for free with a focus on social welfare.

The project comes to life from the application resulting from the studies and experience of the company HORTObot, a highly innovative company in the Precision Farming 4.0. sector, with the mission of engineering intelligent and autonomous machinery that exploits 4.0 technologies to ensure responsible and low environmental impact cultivation» Becchis concludes.

Maria Luisa Doldi

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