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Rise of the Robots

Next-generation tech is tackling some of Canada’s greatest challenges in the agri-food sector

By Jana Manolakos

Last year, people on Toronto streets were startled by “Geoffrey,” a small pink robot, as it quietly rolled past them on the sidewalk. Beside the fact that Geoffrey is undoubtedly one of the world’s cutest restaurant delivery bots, it’s also symbolic of a dramatic surge in robotics and automation throughout the Canadian food supply chain.

From precision farming to automated food distribution centres – and even, Geoffrey the delivery bot – Canada’s food sector finds itself in a rapidly evolving robotic age, where cutting-edge technology is changing the game for production, processing and distribution.

Over the last decade, an influx of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and 5G, robots and automation have reached new degrees of sophistication, becoming faster, more reliable and secure – far beyond what the fathers of robotics, George Devol and Joseph Engelberger, envisioned in 1959 when they introduced Unimate, the world’s first industrial robot.

These smarter-than-ever machines come in different shapes, with a range of functionalities, mobilities, dexterity and cost, from robotic process automation to drones with powerful image- and data-capturing capabilities. Increasing numbers use artificial intelligence to recognize and learn from their surroundings and make decisions independently.

A June 2020 agribusiness market study by Calgary Economic Development suggests that the global agricultural technology market is growing exponentially, and is expected to reach US$729.5 billion by 2023. Factoring prominently in this growth is the adoption of precision farming, which uses technological innovations like GPS, drones, sensors and soil-sampling robots to help farmers make better decisions and grow crops more efficiently.

According to Alberta Innovates, the province’s largest research and innovation agency, “at the core of agriculture’s technological future is the concept of the smart farm, where sensors, automated equipment, agricultural drones and other high-tech machinery and software applications are all connected, giving farmers a full, real-time picture of what’s happening with crops, from planting to harvest.”

In the food, beverage and meat processing sector, these numbers are even more dramatic, with an expected growth to US$4.1 trillion by 2024. This is particularly relevant in Canada, where the sector contributes $28.5 billion to the national GDP, generating over $112 billion in production value as the second-largest manufacturing industry.

Robots to the rescue as Canada faces farm labour shortages
Despite the global demand for Canadian food products – Canada is the fifth-largest agricultural exporter in the world – the sector is grappling with a significant labour shortage in the coming years. Add to that the need to feed an exploding global population, and it’s no wonder that many in the agri-food industry are counting on robots to come to the rescue.

According to Hussam Haroun, director of automation for Ontario-based Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, “With automation, we can solve the labour shortage problem, while also bringing a new generation of workers into the industry by being able to offer people challenging jobs as engineers, technicians and system operators.”

An RBC report, Farmer 4.0, predicts that by 2030, Canada’s agricultural sector could be facing a shortage of 123,000 workers. Each year, 600 fewer young people are pursuing agricultural careers. The shortage is due to a combination of increasing production and a rising number of retiring individuals. By 2025, one in four farmers will be 65 or older, with 110,000 expected to retire in the coming decade, and experts say that’s putting pressure on the cost of labour. In horticulture, labour represents 40 to 60 percent of production costs for growers.

To meet increased demand, farmers are looking to automation and robotics, technologies like self-driving tractors, automated cultivators and robotic harvesters. For example, Vineland is working on automated harvesting of fruits and vegetables, a finicky process that requires artificial intelligence to help the machine identify the fruit on the plant, determine if it’s ripe and pick it without bruising.

Transforming Canadian farms into high-tech operations
On the leading edge of precision agriculture in Canada, the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) brings agri-food companies together with tech companies to boost farm productivity, while keeping the food supply safe. Launched in 2019, the non-profit is funded by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

Dr. Cornelia Kreplin, executive director of Alberta Innovates and a CAAIN advisor, says, “We have a responsibility to help feed the 10 billion people we expect to be on this planet by 2050. To do that, we will need to increase agricultural production by between 50 and 70 percent from current levels.” That’s where precision farming can help.

Kreplin believes the only way forward is to increase the productivity and efficiency of agri-food companies by applying new technological solutions, including artificial intelligence, automation, advanced sensor technologies, hyperspectral imaging and blockchain applications.

Hyperspectral imaging wins CAAIN funding
Last October, CAAIN issued a $15-million call for project proposals focused on automation and digital technology that advance the agri-food sector. This May, the first of eight winners was announced. Quebec-based MatrixSpec Solutions, which specializes in hyperspectral imaging in the food processing industry, will receive a portion of the funds for its high-tech, non-invasive approach to identifying chicken egg genders and fertility. Over the next three years, the funding will cover almost half of MatrixSpec’s $2.8-million Optimizing Hyper-Eye initiative, which aims to help hatcheries produce female-only eggs, avoiding the cost of culling male chicks – a practice that has raised animal welfare concerns in the past. Project partners include the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and Egg Farmers of Ontario.

“Our innovation is world-leading and important for three principal reasons,” explains MatrixSpec founder and CEO, Dr. Michael Ngadi. “First, hatcheries must devote significant resources to the gender identification of day-old hatchlings. Second, existing methods of pre-incubated egg gender identification are invasive. Ours is not, which offers significant advantages. Finally – and this is very exciting – using our hyperspectral imaging tool to identify in ovum gender and fertility is only the beginning. This technology may well provide solutions to other agri-food challenges.” The technology has proven to be more than 90 percent accurate, and the company will use the additional funding to work toward scaling up for industrial application.

Cheaper, smarter, more powerful robots
A 2017 McKinsey report suggests that cheaper, more capable and more flexible technologies are accelerating the growth of fully automated production facilities, as a counterpoint to the rising cost of labour. From increased production outputs to improved quality and consistency, there are numerous reasons why the agri-food industry is rapidly adopting these technologies.

Agri-bots are no longer as cost prohibitive, with prices dropping significantly in the last 30 years, a factor in their rapid adoption. For example, Saskatchewan-based Dot Technology Corp. introduced Canada’s first autonomous power platform, a self-driving, AI-powered vehicle with a range of attachments like seeders, sprayers or a harvester cart. At a cost of US$260,000, the all-purpose robotic machine is cheaper than high-end traditional tractor models with ticket prices that can top US$500,000. The company says its platform helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and leads to savings on fuel, labour and equipment capital costs.

“The introduction of autonomous functionality has presented many opportunities for us to continue to develop our technology, and we are pleased with both the number of acres we’ve put on the machines and the amount we’ve learned over the course of this process,” says Norbert Beaujot, who founded Dot Technology Corp.

Interconnectivity is the name of the game in intelligent automation
Interconnectivity, like IoT and G5, is disrupting agri-tech and reshaping how autonomous robots and drones communicate with other machines and learn. It’s helping reduce costs, offset labour shortages, increase worker productivity, reduce errors, improve inventory and optimize picking, sorting and storing times.

Late last year, Telus launched Telus Agriculture, a new business unit dedicated to providing innovative solutions to support the agriculture industry with connected technology, which the Canadian Federation of Agriculture says is essential to precision agriculture.

At the launch of the new division, Telus president and CEO Darren Entwistle said by digitizing the entire value chain and linking these technologies together for the first time, Telus Agriculture would facilitate a secure exchange of information to allow farmers and ranchers, agri-business organizations, the agri-food industry and consumers to make smarter decisions.

Rogers Telecommunications isn’t far behind, with clients like Metos Canada, delivering IoT-based digital technologies that send information to the farmer’s mobile and desktop from the fields every five minutes and allowing for remote field monitoring, weather monitoring and forecasting, water management, disease modeling, insect monitoring and nutrition management.

Cargill brings facial recognition capability to Canadian meat farms
From automated milking barns to hog sorting robots, new technology can provide a clearer picture of animal health and well-being. This spring Cargill, one of Canada’s largest processors of beef, poultry and oilseed, teamed up with Dublin-based machine vision company Cainthus to introduce facial recognition technology to dairy farms. The software uses predictive imaging to identify individual animals based on hide patterns and facial recognition, and tracks key data such as food and water intake, heat detection and behaviour patterns. The software then delivers analytics to inform decisions on milk production, reproduction management and overall animal health.

David Hunt, president and co-founder of Cainthus, explains, “Technology will truly help farmers succeed. We think this partnership will be a gamechanger for farmers because it will allow them to efficiently scale their business.”

Food and beverage processing leads demand for robots
According to the International Federation of Robotics, a global industry hub, the food and beverage processing sector is the second-largest manufacturing market for robotics in Canada, just after the automotive industry. Spurred on by the new norms of the pandemic, this trend shows no sign of stopping, especially in the pick-and-place, packaging and palletizing space.

While food processors generally have been slow on adopting automation – especially small and medium enterprises – according to a report by the Canadian government, that’s changing. The report suggests that “to remain competitive in an increasingly global market for food and beverage processed products, firms are likely to consider new avenues to manage input cost, productivity, efficiency and the changing characteristics of demand. Automation and robotics can help address some of the challenges faced by these processing firms.”

A new state-of-the-art automated distribution centre scheduled to open in 2023 is the latest to enter the Canadian food supply chain. Quebec-based Groupe Robert, which owns and operates more than 40 distribution centres, recently announced plans to build a fully automated distribution centre in Varennes. The new facility adds to Groupe Robert’s Boucherville agri-food complexes and is designed to meet the food industry’s growing demand for refrigerated and frozen goods.

he total investment of $150 million includes $40 million provided by the Fonds de solidarité FTQ and a $15 million loan from the Government of Quebec. At a height of 150 feet, the new centre will have the storage capacity for 60,000 pallets: 30,000 for fresh products and 30,000 for frozen products. A speedy automated system allows trailers to be unloaded in only a few minutes. Energy efficient with a low carbon footprint, the centre’s heat recovery system reuses heat generated by the refrigeration equipment as part of its climate control system. Solar panels and a rainwater collection system will be used for washing trailers.

Metro invests $800 million into new automated distribution centres
Metro, a leading food and pharmacy retailer in Canada with over $16 billion in annual sales and over 90,000 employees, recently opened the first of three semi-automated distribution centres in Ontario and Quebec. It’s part of a multi-year, $800 million investment.

Working with German storage and logistics expert, Witron, Metro began construction of its first centre in 2019. Located in Toronto, the 700,000-sq.ft. structure includes a fresh foods facility and a frozen foods facility, both with state-of-the-art technology to provide improved product assortment, freshness and selection accuracy for Metro’s store network. The Toronto warehouse supplies more than 250 stores in the province of Ontario with an assortment of 3,600 different frozen products.

The new automated system includes nine automated palletizers and a case picking system. The machines are able to pick over 112,000 cases, more than 100 full pallets, for shipment to Metro stores on a peak day. The distribution centre also includes a five-aisle-high bay warehouse with 12,500 pallet locations and an automated storage and retrieval system with 118,800 tray locations. Innovative conveyor system elements, as well as 18 high-speed stacker cranes – developed and manufactured by Witron’s subsidiary, FAS – keep the system operational even at a temperature of -28°C.

Sobeys pairs its automated warehouse with home delivery
Sobeys took its Vaughan, Ontario, distribution centre to a new level last year by opening a fully automated Customer Fulfillment Centre. Timing couldn’t have been more perfect as the world was grappling with a global pandemic that was driving stay-at-home protocols and online grocery sales.
The 500,000-sq.ft. automated warehouse opened in 2009, costing $150 million. With ceilings that soar to 70 feet, the warehouse hums with machines that save the company 30 to 40 percent in labour costs. Space at the Vaughan facility is optimized through Witron’s automated case picking and palletizing system, which stacks pallets with enough precision to enable eight to 10 percent more products on each pallet.

Faced with steeply growing competition, Sobeys decided to launch Voilà by investing $100 million in new technology and a platform created by Ocado Group, a U.K. technology-led global software and robotics company. Ocado’s technology fills orders at the Vaughan centre, using robots to assemble the orders that staff deliver to customers.

Sarah Joyce, senior vice president of commerce, explains, “Because Voilà delivers customers’ orders directly from an automated warehouse, we have tremendous control over the freshness and quality of our products and the reliability of our deliveries.”

A second centre is currently being built in Montreal to bring Voilà par IGA to major cities in the province of Quebec, as well as Ottawa.

Geoffrey, Canada’s cutest delivery bot
Last year, Tiny Mile, a startup based in Toronto, launched an innovative way to deliver food to consumers. They developed a fleet of robots that provide on-demand delivery in Canada.

The Geoffrey robot – named after Geoffrey Hinton, one of the “godfathers of machine learning” – weighs 10 pounds and can carry up to six pounds in its locked trunk, or basically the equivalent of an $80 takeout order. Moving along sidewalks at a top speed of six km/hr – roughly the same pace of an easy jog – the tiny pink robot is able to deliver orders within a two-km radius from the source restaurant, powered by a 12-hour battery.

Restauranteurs show Geoffrey a custom order number, which triggers the robot to open its lid so the food order can be loaded. Five onboard cameras give the remote pilot a wide, 220-degree view, equipped with a zoom lens to read addresses.

The autonomous delivery robot market is expected to reach a value of US$3.82 million by 2026.

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