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.
: 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?
: 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?
: 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?
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.
: 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.
: 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.
The robot’s three-dimensional vision allows it to identify ripe fruit that are ready to be harvested.
Irrigation Leader: What is the problem that you invented your product to solve?
: 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.
Irrigation Leader: Is your product for sale commercially already?
: No, the product is not for sale yet. We have done pilots over the last year and a half here in Israel, and now we’re doing pilots in Europe. We were planning to bring the product to market by the end of this year, but I think COVID-19 will delay us to the first quarter of next year. Our launch will focus on the high-tech tomato greenhouse sector.
Irrigation Leader: Do you have a team of engineers who designed the product?
: I’m an engineer myself, and my brother and I did the early stages of the development, but we now have a strong, multidisciplinary team that combines skills in deep learning, AI, mechanical design, and robotics engineering. Robotics development requires knowledge in different fields, and we have that with our team.
Irrigation Leader: You mentioned that your target customers are the high-tech greenhouses. What makes those distinctive, and how are they different from the greenhouses that you would find in Israel?
: The high-tech sector was started in countries where the weather doesn’t allow the growth of crops like vegetables outside, and artificial weather must be created inside greenhouses. The technology was first developed in the Netherlands and involves glass houses within which the climate, light conditions, and humidity are all controlled. These facilities allow operators to grow 90–100 kilograms (kg) of tomatoes per square meter. Many tasks inside these high-tech greenhouses are already automated; they are like factories that can work all year round and produce vegetables independent of the climate outside. These are not like the passive greenhouses—net houses or polyethylene-covered greenhouses—used in warm places like Israel or Spain, which take advantage of the climate and have lower production costs but can only grow at certain times of the year. Passive greenhouses can only grow around 20 kg per square meter. We refer to the high-tech sector as robotics ready, because the facilities inside the greenhouse allow you to add a smart machine without changing the infrastructure. Also, because they have higher production costs, they have a more urgent need to improve productivity, and because they operate all year round, our robots provide better value for their cost.
Irrigation Leader: Are your potential customers primarily large agricultural companies?
: Today, you find fewer small farmers around the world and more large farming groups with a large growing area. We’re not just focusing on the larger farmers—if you have more than 1–2 hectares (2½–5 acres), our product is valid for you—but larger-sized greenhouses can save more on their expenses and be more efficient.
Irrigation Leader: Do you plan to build devices for other crops as well?
: We also have another product that I cannot give you a lot of detail about right now. It’s another robotic solution, designed for cannabis-growing greenhouses, that likewise replaces a labor-intensive task inside the greenhouse. We are developing it with a Canadian partner and plan to bring it to market later this year.
Also, I should add that the robotic platform we have built for tomato harvesting is capable of performing other actions. In addition to performing labor-intensive tasks, it can actually improve the quality of the crop by taking pictures of it and analyzing those pictures to identify stressed or diseased areas. In the future, we plan to offer more features of that kind.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of your company?
: Our main focus is to complete the development of our products and bring them to the market. We are doing this in close collaboration with our future growers to verify that we have developed a product that they can use. We are planning to introduce the cannabis robot later this year and to start selling our first application of the tomato-harvesting robot most likely during the first quarter of 2021.