Pioneering Automation with Seasony's Watney

How Seasony's Watney is Automating Agriculture for a Sustainable Tomorrow

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In the face of a looming global food crisis, with the world population projected to hit 9 billion by 2050, doubling our crop production becomes an ambition and a necessity. The challenge is monumental: how do we achieve this without further depleting our soils, polluting our waters, and depleting our resources? The answer lies in innovation, and Seasony is at the vanguard of this agricultural revolution with its flagship offering, Watney.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Dan Nielsen, the Head of Strategy at Seasony, to talk about how Seasony is changing the agriculture landscape with automation.

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A Little About Seasony 

Seasony is a mobile robotics company that aims to bring the best practices of warehouse automation into indoor farming. Over the past four years, Seasony has developed its flagship product Watney. Watney is an autonomous mobile robot; it doesn't need guidelines or rails- it moves around by itself and even works side by side with humans with complete autonomy. Watney tackles tasks like transportation, data capture, and other needs necessary for an indoor farm. Interestingly enough, Watney is named after the character Mark Watney from the book "The Martian," honoring the idea of colonizing planets and ushering in the robotics automation necessary to do so. 

The vision of automation 

Dan emphasized that the core goal of Seasony is to integrate a new style of automation into vertical farming and indoor agriculture. He believes that controlled environment agriculture will be a crucial component of the future food system, especially as the world faces the challenge of feeding a growing population under changing climate conditions. Dan compared the evolution of vertical farming technology to the trajectory of renewable energy. It started as an expensive niche option but eventually reached an inflection point where it became the most cost-effective choice due to technological advancements and scale.

He explained that the industry began with fully manual operations and then moved into what he calls the second wave—large-scale, highly automated vertical farms inspired by manufacturing and logistics models. However, recent challenges in the industry suggest that neither extreme of no automation nor excessive automation is ideal.

Dan proposed that the future of vertical farming automation lies in a more balanced approach, with semi-automation or flexible automation playing a critical role. He sees mobile robots as pivotal in this space, enabling growers to automate the most labor-intensive parts of farming without overcommitting to costly infrastructure. This approach allows starting with a simple setup and scaling automation alongside production, choosing the right processes to automate while retaining some tasks for humans and others for fully automatic machines.

More about Watney 

The significant benefit of Watney's automation is that it can be put in any farm layout. If a customer wants to increase the density of their racking systems or add equipment to their farm, Watney can adapt to the layout. Dan then described how Watney is designed to safely work alongside humans using LiDAR technology to detect and navigate around obstacles, including people. When introduced to a new environment, these robots create and store a local map to guide their movements.

Dan gave an example of a customer in Norway using a hybrid system where robots transport trays within the cultivation system. At the same time, humans perform harvesting and transplanting tasks in the same space. The robot's ability to maneuver around people and objects safely makes this coexistence on the floor possible.

He was surprised at how quickly people build trust in these robots. Even as these large machines operate close to workers, carrying significant weight, the workers don't flinch, demonstrating a rapid growth of trust in the technology. Dan concluded that the ability of these robots to work safely alongside humans is a true benefit of their system.

Watney's three primary functions

Dan expressed that Watney has three essential functions when on the farm:

  • Intra-farm Movement: Watney automates the movement of plant trays to various stations within the farm, such as growing, harvesting, transplanting, and cleaning stations. This automation is crucial for vertical farms, where such movement is a significant task.

  • Data and Insights: Watney is equipped with climate sensors to measure temperature, CO2, and humidity, creating a three-dimensional climate map of the farm. This mobile mapping allows growers to pinpoint exact locations where issues like temperature variances or system failures occur, facilitating proactive problem-solving. Additionally, Watney can perform visual inspections with an onboard camera, capturing images for plant scientists to analyze, reducing manual inspection and improving monitoring efficiency.

  • Open Platform: The third aspect is Watney's role as an open platform, which allows users to integrate various specialized technologies into the mobile robot. For instance, Dan mentions a pilot project integrating a strawberry harvesting arm from a company specializing in this complex task. By adding this technology to Watney, they aim to achieve autonomous strawberry harvesting within vertical farms.

Regarding integration, Dan explains that they use open APIs to combine different technologies. For example, Watney could provide the network, power, and positioning for a robotic arm, which executes its specialized harvesting software when in the correct location. This system enables technology companies to deploy their innovations in vertical farms without needing to develop their robots, leveraging existing tech to enhance farm operations.

Automating sustainably 

Dan addressed Watney's impact on sustainability and the carbon footprint in vertical farming. He outlined two key points:

  1. Robotics as a Service Business Model: Seasony adopts a robotics-as-a-service model, meaning they lease or rent equipment rather than sell it. This ensures that Seasony is vested in efficiently maintaining, upgrading, and repurposing equipment, aligning its commercial incentives with sustainability goals. This model also eases the financial burden on new farms, allowing them to operationalize automation-related expenses, which aligns with Seasony's vision of making new farms more viable and sustainable.

  2. Alternative to Conventional Automation: Watney provides an alternative to human labor and conventional static automation. Traditional automation involves extensive use of steel and other materials that remain idle most of the time, contributing significantly to the carbon footprint. In contrast, despite being a two-ton robot, Watney replaces the need for much more significant amounts of steel used in fixed installations like elevators, conveyors, and rails. By optimizing the use of materials and ensuring active use throughout the day, Watney contributes to a lower carbon footprint for the farming operation.

Dan also mentioned Seasony's role in the next wave of vertical farming, focusing on making mobile robotics an integral, credible option in farm design, creating a third pathway between manual and fully automated systems. They aim to address the automation of complex tasks like transportation and data gathering in a more environmentally friendly and efficient way.

Seasony also plans to expand its product portfolio to accommodate various types of controlled environment agriculture beyond vertical farming, including greenhouses, mushroom, and insect farming. They are also looking to establish a more substantial presence outside Europe, particularly in the Gulf region, where they anticipate significant advancements in agricultural technology.

Reflecting on the Challenges of Controlled Environment Agriculture

When asked about the tough questions he faces regarding controlled environment agriculture and its worth, Dan reflected on the need for the industry to grow and attract financing, especially in a challenging economic climate with increasing interest rates and rising costs, making investments in such technology difficult.

He noted that the industry, previously at the peak of the hype curve, was now in a "valley of despair" but was beginning to gain momentum again. Dan suggested that future financing might shift away from venture capital towards retailers, food distributors, private investors, government initiatives, and traditional growers moving into vertical farming.

Dan also pondered how far into the future vertical farming sits on the innovation roadmaps of supermarket retail companies. He acknowledged the slower momentum in the industry but was optimistic about its rebound.

From a product perspective, Dan faced the challenge of convincing the industry of the benefits of thinking about automation differently. He referred to the concept from the book "Crossing the Chasm," where adopting new technology requires building trust and credibility. Educating the industry on the opportunities of automation is challenging but also rewarding.

The Future of Agriculture

Looking towards the next decade, Dan envisioned that the vertical farming sector, including indoor and hybrid greenhouses, would continue to evolve. He highlighted the incredible output of current technology and the untapped potential in seed genetics, lighting recipes, fertigation, and irrigation. He anticipated that as renewable energy becomes more prevalent and energy costs decrease, the industry will reach an inflection point of efficiency.

Dan also mentioned emerging verticals like tree sapling indoor growth, mushroom production, and insect farming, hinting at a shift towards more controlled food production environments. He was skeptical about indoor production of crops like wheat and corn but saw promise for other types of produce that benefit significantly from controlled environments.

Dan emphasized the comparison between mobile robotics and conventional automation, hinting at a whitepaper Seasony had published (Full access to the whitepaper can be found here), advocating for a future where flexible and modular automation becomes the norm, drawing parallels to advancements made in warehouse automation.

In our engaging discussion with Dan Nielsen of Seasony, we delved into the transformative potential of Watney, a pioneering force in vertical farming automation. Seasony's forward-thinking approach, which marries semi-automation with an innovative robotics-as-a-service business model, promises a sustainable and scalable future for agriculture. As the industry navigates the complexities of a growing global population and sustainability challenges, Seasony's commitment to modular, efficient, and adaptable solutions like Watney positions them as a key player in shaping the future of controlled environment agriculture and beyond.

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