This Salad Brought to You by Robots


Handling delicate items like lettuce can be tricky for automated machines. Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Handling delicate items like lettuce can be tricky for automated machines. Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

Everyone wants a robotic butler who can cook, clean and do laundry. That reality is still a long way off, but Japan-based agricultural company Spread has just brought us one step closer with robot farmers. This week, Spread execs announced their plans to open the world's first fully automated farm, something they're calling a "vegetable factory."

This won't be Spread's first venture into farming. The company built its Kameoka plant factory back in 2007, and has presumably learned a lot from that experience.

The new factory, set to start production by mid-2017, will be 4,400 square meters (or 47,300 square feet) of floor-to-ceiling shelves of lettuce. They're expecting to grow as many as 30,000 heads of lettuce a day once they open, with hopes of reaching half a million heads a day within five years. 

Automated machines will handle every aspect of farming, although the factory will still rely on workers to monitor the system controls; seed, trim, measure and package the produce; and oversee R&D, according to J. J. Price, global marketing manager for Spread. 

Spread isn't just using robot farmers for the cool factor. (And no, the "farmers" don't look at all humanoid.) Automated farming poses a sustainable alternative to traditional methods. The company estimates that by adopting an automated farming model, it will cut labor costs by half, cut energy costs by nearly one-third and be able to recycle 98 percent of the water used in growing the lettuce. The hope is that this model can help address food shortages by creating a way to grow produce that's unaffected by climate or soil quality.

"We believe that it will take the combination of various agricultural techniques in order to solve the world's food problems," Price says via email. "We hope that we can also cooperate with like-minded people around the world to help create a sustainable society for people where people do not have to worry about food security and safety through the promotion of agriculture as a whole around the globe."

The plant factory can be built anywhere, too, which adds to another aspect of sustainability: food mileage reduction. Thanks to the globalization of the food industry, and a demand for year-round access to produce, large sums of money and fuel are spent shipping food from place to place. 

According to a study published by the British government in 2005, for example, food transport in the U.K. produced 20.9 million tons (19 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide, and accounted for 30 percent of all road freight (in terms of miles traveled). By creating farms that can be built anywhere and create produce year-round, Spread aims to significantly reduce food mileage.

Sustainable robot farms are just one stop on the pathway to food innovation for Spread. The company would like to use similar techniques to grow produce in space, a feat that NASA accomplished for the first time last year