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Japan tech venture gets autonomous vegetable harvesting robot into the field

A harvesting robot is seen choosing and picking asparaguses ready for harvest in a greenhouse in Tara, Saga Prefecture, on Oct. 16, 2019. (Mainichi/Mio Ikeda)

SAGA -- An agricultural high-tech startup company in eastern Japan has launched an autonomous robotic harvester that picks greenhouse vegetables and has begun leasing the machine to an asparagus farmer in Saga Prefecture, southwestern Japan.

According to Inaho, this is the first time that an autonomous harvester robot has hit the market in the country. The firm, based in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, believes the robot will reduce the labor load on farming families facing a growing worker shortage.

Inaho, established in 2017, developed and improved the robot through feasibility experiments with a farmer in Tara, Saga Prefecture. The firm opened a branch office in the prefectural city of Kashima in January 2019 to market the machine to asparagus and cucumber farmers in Tara and surrounding areas. The company is now ready to provide full cooperation and maintenance services to local farmers using the robot.

The robot is equipped with an infrared sensor and can recognize vegetables ready for picking by their size. A single charge lasts for 10 hours, and the machine can keep working even at night. After picking every vegetable ready for harvest in a particular greenhouse, the robot sends a notification to the owner's smartphone.

"Harvesting accounts for 50% to 60% of the all the time we spend on farm work," said 40-year-old farmer Kotaro Ando, who has the machine working on his property. "The robot gives us time we can divert to sales promotion and experiments to improve the quality of our products. It's so helpful."

Inaho will lease robots to farmers and takes 15% of the value of their yields as its fee, and do maintenance work free of charge. To make sure it can quickly get to any robot in need of a tune-up, the firm is initially targeting farmers within a 30-minute car drive from its Kashima office.

However, in the future Inaho intends to establish 25 offices on the southwestern main island of Kyushu, where Saga Prefecture is located, to market the robot more broadly.

The robot can harvest other kinds of vegetables grown in greenhouses if their arms are replaced. The company is aiming to improve the machine to be able to harvest cucumbers, strawberries and tomatoes.

Inaho CEO Yutaka Hishiki, 36, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Growing vegetables in greenhouses and so on puts a heavy harvesting burden on workers, and the difficulty of securing enough labor means the area under cultivation can't be expanded. By supplying harvesting robots, we'd like to ensure that the growing area and farming households' income can be doubled even if the workforce is halved."

(Japanese original by Mio Ikeda, Saga Bureau)

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