New York-based vertical farming company Bowery Farming said it has acquired 3D vision and robotics startup Traptic as it seeks to automate harvesting of more-delicate and traditionally hand-picked crops, such as strawberries.
Financial terms of the deal were not publicly disclosed. Bowery, founded in 2015 and one of the biggest players in the rapidly expanding indoor-farming space, said it will use Traptic's specialized computer vision system, which relies on 3D cameras, robotic arms and artificial intelligence, to scale up its offering of fruit and vine crops.
The multitude of controlled-environment farming companies that have launched in the past 10 years have focused primarily on leafy greens, which their robot-reliant indoor farms then supply to regional retailers and restaurants with the promise of a much shorter transport time and a more-reliable supply, given that crops grown indoors aren't subject to changing weather conditions, pests, etc. Last month, Walmart announced a major investment in vertical farm Plenty, which will start supplying leafy greens to Walmart stores across California later this year.
Fruit harvesting, however—given the products' size, shape and susceptibility to bruising—is a trickier thing for robots to master.
Still, according to Traptic, the need for more automated and tech-enabled fruit harvesting is there: "10% of the strawberries grown in the U.S. rot in the fields because there aren’t enough people available to pick them,” Traptic states in a company video. "That’s $300 million a year of wasted crop."
Traptic's vision system, according to a Bowery news release, is able to distinguish ripe from unripe produce, determine its positioning to the millimeter, and guide robotic arms to pick ripe, blemish-free produce at any time of day or night, increasing harvesting efficiency and reducing food waste. Traptic's first application will be in Bowery's first commercial strawberry harvest this spring; Bowery said the technology also is able to assist with pollination, pruning and thinning as well as with harvesting other delicate crops, such as tomatoes and basil.
"The dexterity and precision of Traptic's robotic arm movement engineered by 3D localization and pathing is very exciting," Bowery CTO Injong Rhee said in a statement. "By joining forces with Traptic, Bowery's network of smart indoor farms will achieve another level of technological sophistication and maturity."
Bowery's fresh leafy greens are currently available in more than 800 retail locations across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, including Whole Foods Market, Giant Food, Stop & Shop and Walmart stores. The company has raised more than $497 million in equity funding, including $300 million in a Series C funding round last spring, and counts GV (formerly Google Ventures) and chefs Tom Colicchio and José Andrés among its investors. Outside of its New York headquarters, Bowery has three farms under construction in metropolitan Atlanta, metropolitan Dallas, and Bethlehem, Pa.