MetoMotion’s Robotic Tomato Harvester
Metomotion is an Israeli company that has brought together robotics, mechanical design, and artificial intelligence (AI) to develop an autonomous robotic platform that can automatically harvest tomatoes grown in greenhouses, saving significantly on operational and labor costs. Having attracted funding from governmental and corporate sources in Israel and Europe, it plans to begin selling its products as early as this year.
In this interview, Metomotion CEO Adi Nir talks to Irrigation Leader about greenhouse agriculture and how Metomotion’s robotic platform stands to benefit greenhouse growers around the world.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Adi Nir: I’m originally from Kibbutz Sarid in Israel—I’m from the third generation of my family in the kibbutz. I’ve been working in agriculture since a young age. Later on, I studied engineering at the Technion in Israel and spent almost 17 years in the aerospace industry as a research and development engineer and in project management positions. Then, together with my brother, who is a robotics engineer, I decided that I would love to use my kibbutz background and my aerospace industry experience to solve issues in agriculture. Farmers face a lot of urgent issues, including desertification and labor shortage, and we would like to help find solutions through technology.
Irrigation Leader: Is the kibbutz you are from still a primarily agricultural community?
Adi Nir: Yes, it is mainly focused on agriculture but also includes industry. My personal experience was with different agricultural production methods, including open crops and orchards.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about greenhouse agriculture in Israel and its importance?
Adi Nir: Israel’s natural resources include a lot of sun and weather that is warmer than in Europe. There are a lot of greenhouses that take advantage of this to grow crops all year round. In Israel, we have about 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of greenhouses, mainly in the south, in the Negev Desert. Because the climate makes it relatively cheap to produce vegetables here, it’s a big industry. However, because Metomotion’s product is primarily designed for the high-tech greenhouse sector, our main focus is not in Israel but more in North America, northern Europe, Japan, and places like that.
Irrigation Leader: What are the top crops that are grown in greenhouses in Israel?
Adi Nir: The top crops are similar to greenhouse crops around the world: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and salad greens.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Metomotion as a company.
Adi Nir: The company was established at the beginning of 2017. We started our work in an incubator program run by a business partner called the Trendlines Group and supported by the Israeli Innovation Authority, a publicly funded agency that invests in early-stage tech and medical companies. Today, we’re still a startup. We have eight direct employees and work with a few subcontractors as well. A few months ago, the company won a prize from the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture for innovation in robotics. We also received a grant from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program. We have a Dutch partner company that is also a shareholder, and we are working with it on the implementation process in Europe and the next stages of sales and support in Europe and North America.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your product.
Adi Nir: We have created a robotic platform that can do labor-intensive tasks in the greenhouse environment. The first application we are working on is tomato harvesting. Tomatoes are harvested selectively every 4–5 days, all year round. This is one of the major tasks being done in greenhouses today. Our robots will be able to reduce the labor needs of harvesting by 80 percent and reduce production costs by about 50 percent. Our product, which is an autonomous vehicle designed for the greenhouse environment, brings together different robotics technologies. With its three-dimensional vision system, it is able to locate ripe fruit, determine whether they are ready to be picked, calculate their position in space, and pick them without damaging the fruit or the plant. It can do all that autonomously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Irrigation Leader: What is the problem that you invented your product to solve?
Adi Nir: In recent years, there has been a labor crisis in the agricultural sector in Israel and around the world. Farmers are getting older, and the younger generation is looking for different kinds of jobs. Metomotion’s product helps solve this issue. We have taken a labor-intensive task that does not require a highly qualified person—tomato harvesting—and automated it. Up to 50 percent of a tomato grower’s production costs are labor costs. We can help reduce these costs while also solving the labor shortage problem.