Jason Rambo, Jodi Haines, and Cody Alter all have ownership in Alter Farms, a cannabis farm located in Grants Pass, Ore. Lugging blue totes filled with harvested cannabis crops against a blue Oregon sky, all-terrain vehicles buzz about carrying the fruits of their labor with an unspoken excitement – as if an agricultural revolution has hit an exciting new reset in the western U.S. Alter Farms’ prize-winning cannabis has won numerous awards for their products, and their farm has been featured in publications such as The Potlander, Dope magazine, and Celeb Stoner.
As more states legalize cannabis production and use, growers are chugging to keep up with demand, which may give way to investment in robotics and automation technologies to boost productivity and scale their operations.
Thus far, about 33 states along with the District of Columbia have some form of law that provides legalization of marijuana. The District of Columbia and some 11 other states have even deeper and more expansive laws for cannabis legalization. In California alone, there are about 2,600 licensed cannabis growers alone. As more states legalize cannabis, its demand will grow and so will its production.
But the adoption of robotics may take some time to gain momentum. “The development of state specific cannabis regulations remains in flux,” Josh Kern, an analyst for autonomous systems with Lux Research in Boston. “While we expect states to slowly pass industry favorable legislation, it still remains a fragmented industry. The fragmented nature of the U.S. cannabis industry supports consolidation of cannabis production rather than innovations in technologies like robotics. There are a few robot companies developing solutions, but momentum remains slow.”
To boost productivity, cannabis growers are turning to solutions such as those from Bloom Automation. The company produces robots that are programmed with machine vision and path-planning algorithms. These robots have “learned” the cannabis crop from some 6,000 images to distinguish between the different parts of the plant and recognize and isolate the cluster of flowers needed for harvest. Thus far, such technology seems to be working. In Bloom’s case, they claim a 97% accuracy and a doubling of the efficiency capable of humans performing the same task.
There is an opportunity for equipment manufacturers and robotics to enter the cannabis industry from many directions,” said Andy Rodosevich, CEO and Co-Founder of Hemp Depot, one of the largest wholesale providers of the cannabis extract Cannabidiol (CBD) in the US.
Rodosevich said there is few, if any, commercially available automation equipment available for hemp agriculture. “John Deere doesn’t make a CBD harvester, for example,” he said. “We are having to create our own custom equipment suited for our needs. In our first year harvesting with modified equipment, we blew $10 million worth of CBD out the back of the machine before realizing it was not able to work for our plants. In the not too distant future, we expect to see manufacturers and robotics present at every stage of the cannabis product lifecycle.”
Alleviating manual labor, expediting growth
For the robotics sector, the cannabis market clearly offers new opportunities, as it has yet to be fully developed and matured. There are many areas within a cannabis operation where robots would be useful.
For example, they may be utilized for indoor or outdoor operations to not only harvest, but aid in the processing of the cannabis products to market. The many processes that benefit from robotics in industrial or other agricultural operations can be applied in the production of hemp, cannabis, or CBD. Robotic applications can be used to cultivate, harvest, or even in laboratory applications for refining operations.
Carl Silverberg is the senior Vice President for outreach and public affairs for the Seattle-based iUNU, an industrial computer vision company serving precision agriculture for indoor growing. Silverberg says there is a massive opportunity for robotics companies to capitalize on the inefficiencies of indoor and outdoor operations for high-value crops The solutions his firm offers use robots to collect and analyze data to allow their customers to make data-driven decisions.
“We work with some of the largest produce and cannabis growers in North America,” says Silverberg. “The reason is that robots are infinitely more efficient, the data they collect is instantaneous, and it only takes them an hour to scan a football field-sized greenhouse. They see every plant in a greenhouse because they’re looking at it from above, whereas a human being has to try and see as much as they can from a ground-level view. And a robot always operates at peak efficiency, whether it’s the beginning of the day or the end of the day.”
Despite some challenges in indoor cannabis production, robots can bring efficiencies to the indoor agricultural operation, Silverberg said. “Our robots are operating in greenhouses, an environment that’s challenging because of the humidity and high temperatures. Electronics generally don’t like water and extreme heat.”
“We’ve spent half a decade perfecting our robots,” he added. “It’s extremely difficult to operate across different regions because each situation presents a multitude of challenges. Instead of a grower spending four to five hours a day looking for problems in a greenhouse, the robots allow him to use that time-solving problems and increasing his yield. Robots provide a highly accurate means of collecting, analyzing and retaining the data.”
Andy Rodosevich of Hemp Depot explains that because hemp production does not use pesticides, unwanted weeds near the hemp crop must be manually removed. This is laborious, and is one task that could be accomplished by robots.
“Hemp CBD and most consumable cannabis cannot be grown with the use of any pesticides or traditional weed management methods, so all weeding of entire farms is currently done by hand, Rodosevich said. “In 2019 the labor to manually control weeds accounted for a full 60% of our current cost to farm.”
Aside from indoor and outdoor growing, robotics is also expected to play a role in laboratories connected to a growth in cannabis demand and production. Michael Klein, the CEO of cannabisMD, said companies will seek to streamline workflows and improve efficiencies. “One of the keys to accomplishing this would be automation,” said Klein. “This will be useful in not only the lab space, but the processing space as well.” CannabisMD is an online information portal covering cannabis. The company also partners with Think20 Labs, an analytical testing laboratory for hemp and cannabis, for testing the CBD products they have on their page and also assist with answering any technical questions.
Edward Sawicki, the CEO of Think20, reflects on his past career posts, where he worked with a number of high-throughput labs to help increase efficiencies, bring down costs, and decrease turnaround times with the help of automation.
“As this market grows,” Sawicki said, “labs look to expand without jeopardizing quality, the need for robotic automation is going to play a major role in the future of cannabis testing.”
The chronology of maturation is still plotting along a predictable timeline. Legalization has and continues to progress. As it does, more growers will enter the marketplace. As demand increases, those growers will gain customers from a growing market of users. As users increase, the growers will have more resources to invest in technology – for indoor, outdoor, and laboratory operations.
Companies such as Alter Farms and others will continue their drive to succeed, sparking a need to be more efficient, meet demand, produce better products, and reduce their overall operating costs. As the entire cannabis timeline progresses, robotics is likely to be part of its success, eliminating bad weeds, and producing the good ones.