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Aichi team develops self-driving robots to tackle labor shortage in farming

Chunichi Shimbun

Amid a severe shortage of manpower, a team comprised of researchers from private companies and a university in Aichi Prefecture is working on developing a self-driving robot that uses cutting-edge technology to support flower-growing farmers.

In fiscal 2019 the group hopes to start marketing automated, handcart-type robots that follow pickers of roses and chrysanthemums, carry the cut flowers, and deliver them to collection points.

In a laboratory at Toyohashi University of Technology in Toyohashi, a roughly 1-meter-high handcart-type robot — equipped with three cameras and two infrared radar devices — moves back and forth, changing direction smoothly.

The robot, which recognizes its location through camera footage, can self-drive on the farm grounds or inside greenhouses, follow flower pickers while keeping a certain distance, collect picked flowers, and carry them to designated collection points.

Following flower pickers and transporting cut flowers became possible through the use of autonomous driving technology that involves the 3D mapping of farm grounds.

Institutions from which researchers are participating in the development team include Sinfonia Technology Co., an electric appliances manufacturer which has its main factory in Toyohashi, and Aichi Agricultural Research Center. The project started in fiscal 2016 with a subsidy from the prefectural government to support next-generation robot development.

Among Japan’s 47 prefectures Aichi has maintained the top position in flower shipments for 55 years in a row. In fiscal 2016 the value of shipments reached ¥57.2 billion, accounting for 16 percent of the nation’s total.

However, the industry has recently faced a shortage of workers due to the aging of farmers, and growers have become alarmed by an increase in imports of flowers mass produced in countries where labor costs are lower. The robot project began in response to farmers’ hopes to further improve work efficiency.

“Handcart-type robots are highly versatile as they can be used in sectors other than the flower industry, such as picking fruit and vegetables and delivering components inside factories. We expect strong demand for the product,” said Mitsuo Tsume, 69, who heads Sinfonia Technology’s new project planning division.

The labor shortage in the agriculture industry is worsening as each year passes. According to farm ministry statistics, the number of laborers working on the nation’s farms fell by about 50 percent over the last decade, dropping from 3.12 million in 2007 to 1.81 million in 2017, and is expected to continue declining. The average age of Japanese farmers is climbing; it reached 66.6 years old in 2017.

Major farm machinery manufacturers are working hard to develop self-driving vehicles and other products to facilitate automation in agriculture.

Kubota Corp. began trial sales last year of its self-driving robot tractor that plows the land using GPS data. Similar robots have also been developed by rivals Yanmar Co. and Iseki & Co. The companies are also aiming to sell automated machines for rice planting and harvesting.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published June 15.