August 18, 2016      

RoboValley in the Netherlands has attracted investor interest, as organizations in Delft work to make the region a hub, not only for Dutch robotics, but also for European and global robotics research and development. Robotics leadership can be found in Netherlands agriculture.

Vancouver, British Columbia-based Chrysalix Venture Capital has pledged $146 million to RoboValley for early-stage robotics advancements. In addition, Boston-based Accenture is investing €500,000 ($566,000) for robotics R&D in RoboValley.

The Netherlands will also be hosting the RoboBusiness Europe 2017 conference.

As companies turn to RoboValley for the next wave of robotics advancements, what is taking place within the Dutch robotics industry, and how can the Netherlands use robotics to grow its influence globally?

Dutch robotics grows in agriculture

One way in which the Dutch robotics industry is growing is by solving challenges facing farmers worldwide.

In the 1980s, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Germany led the advancements around robotic milking. More than 30 years later, Lely Group unveiled the Astronaut A4 device. (The company introduced its first robotic milker in 1992.)

Using Lely’s I-Flow, cows can walk in and out of the machinery, essentially milking themselves. The robotic device also communicates with farmers, allowing them to check on the operations with their smartphones.

Most cows have to be milked twice a day, or they experience physical pain, and more than 20 billion gallons of milk is produced daily in the U.S., with the average cow producing 6.5 gallons of milk a day. Thus, the potential for Netherlands agriculture devices such as the Astronaut A4 is clear.

Netherlands agriculture includes intensive orchid growing.

Although Holland is known for tulips, Sion Orchids conducts intensive orchid growing.

Last year, Green Circle Growers refocused itself around orchids. In order to do this, the Oberlin, Ohio-based flower company adopted the “Dutch method.” Farmers in the Netherlands use intelligent greenhouses and sustainable strategies.

Green Circle Growers replicated this method and introduced Dutch robots to help with moving and labeling the plants. Today, it is the largest orchid grower in North America.

Also last year, a professor at Wageningen University announced that he is developing a robot to help collect eggs, monitor the health of chickens, and raise productivity. Edvert van Henten said he wants to take this poultry robot to markets around the world.

The markets for milk, flowers, and eggs are not temporary, so agricultural robotics companies in the Netherlands should enjoy sustained growth and continue expanding Dutch influence.

Netherlands agriculture robots must adapt

There are, however, a number of challenges facing Netherlands agriculture robotics. Firstly, the climate, conditions, and farming practices are different in other countries. Can Dutch robots that help grow flowers be programmed for different parts of the world, or can they adapt based on temperature, humidity, etc.?

If not, this is an opportunity for a robotics company to develop software or hardware with such capabilities.

Secondly, do Dutch robotic companies specializing in agricultural automation have a strategy to break into markets like China and Japan while also protecting their intellectual property and patents? They will need a plan to stop local robotics companies in those countries, especially China, from reverse-engineering the innovations and selling them.

Lastly, until now, these robots have been developed for traditional farms. But what about the farms of tomorrow?

Spread Co., a Japanese vegetable producer, plans to open a facility in 2017 where robots will conduct all farming tasks. What space does this leave for Dutch agricultural robotics?

If the traditional farm is becoming harder to penetrate, perhaps a nontraditional farm like the home farm is a market for Dutch robotics companies. FarmBot has unveiled a robot-automation solution to grow farms in the backyard of homes. The robot will plant seeds, water them efficiently, track nutrients, soil conditions and more. Is this where Dutch robotics can go next?

Dutch robots are leading in dairy and floral robotics because these markets are similar and undersaturated. As companies in Netherlands agriculture expand into foreign markets and develop the next versions of their robotic products, the true test will emerge, not just for agricultural robots, but for Dutch robotics as a whole.

In my next article, we’ll look at the Netherlands as a testing ground for robotics.

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