‘Dirty’ jobs for robotic hands: Inside the quest to automate food supply chains

Automation Nation Story 2

 

This is part two of a four-part series examining how automation will change Canadians’ lives, for better or worse.

Robots are already commonplace at most grocers in major Canadian cities.

Self-checkout kiosks were, for many shoppers, the first sign of the robot revolution — a digitized voice and a bright screen replacing the warm greeting and bright smile of a friendly cashier.

Click to play video: 'Robotic supply chain: How automation impacts the food you eat'
Robotic supply chain: How automation impacts the food you eat

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But before your freshly-grown vegetables reach the shelves of your local grocer, robots have been playing a growing role in every step of the food supply chain.

Coming off a year with food inflation routinely clocking in above 10 per cent and global production disruptions, grocers, farmers and experts in automation are looking at the robot workforce as a “necessity” to make sure food is fresh and affordable.

Nexus Robotics Inc.

Standing out in the field

Teric Greenan, a self-described “city kid” from Halifax, N.S. took an atypical path to robotics after leaving an engineering program at St. Francis Xavier University after one year: he started a farm.

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Greenan travelled across Canada after he left school and says he “fell in love with agriculture and the technical systems” that underpin the industry.

Starting his own farm back east in Lunenburg County, N.S., he heard from other farmers and felt first-hand one of the major pain points in the industry — and a familiar one to home gardeners — weeds.

Seeing the potential for a mechanical hand to remove some sore backs from the equation, he founded Nexus Robotics Inc.

The company develops a machine that travels autonomously through farmers’ fields with a claw attachment on its base. An intelligent sensor spots weeds protruding from the ground and extends to tear it out, root and all, as part of its patrol.

The Nexus Robotics machine extends a claw into the ground to pull out the weed, root and all. Nexus Robotics Inc.

That sensor has been trained to expertly detect patterns in the field that would distinguish a harmful weed from the crop itself, Greenan explains.

“As time goes on, it’s becoming more and more difficult for us to have large labour forces that are willing to stand in a 30-degree field and pull weeds from the ground,” he tells Global News.

“In my view, robotics is just a necessary next step in order to automate this task, just like many other undesirable jobs that we’re trying to automate out of necessity.”

Canadians who haven’t spent much time on a farm recently might be surprised by how widely adopted automation is in agriculture.

In a Nov. 30 report documenting Canada’s agricultural technology, or AgTech, industry, RBC stated that more than 50,000 farms in Canada are making use of auto-steer capabilities on tractors and other machines, representing 47 per cent of total field crop farms in the country.

Click to play video: 'Digital farming  on the rise with the help of artificial intelligence, robotics'
Digital farming on the rise with the help of artificial intelligence, robotics

Some six per cent of these farms are even using drones in their production, according to the report, done in collaboration with the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute and the BCG Centre for Canada’s Future.

William Melek, the director of the RoboHub at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, says the food supply chain is “one of the most exciting new application areas of robots we’re seeing today.”

Melek tells Global News that today’s advanced robotics have indeed risen to the point of taking over some jobs, but that adoption is most robust for “demanding,” “dirty” and even “dangerous” work that human workers don’t want to do.

The other area robots excel are in repetitive tasks, and in areas where labour shortages are constraining production capacity in the supply chain, he notes.

Click to play video: 'Is Canada keeping up with automation?'
Is Canada keeping up with automation?

Piloting the 'middle mile'

Major grocers have already started to notice the upsides in non-human workforces. Distribution centres from the likes of Loblaw Co. and Empire Co. are increasingly staffed by robotic workers to ferry and sort shipments from one end of the warehouse to another.

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But more and more, food delivery robots are making their presence felt outside the confined walls of warehouses and on city streets — to mixed response. Toronto, for example, banned small delivery bots from its sidewalks late last year citing accessibility concerns for those with limited mobility or vision.

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Loblaw made headlines this fall when it announced that autonomous box trucks would take to the streets in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to deliver PC Express online food orders with an empty driver’s seat. A human worker would still be present in the vehicle during trips, but on the passenger’s side.

Before that point, Loblaw said 150,000 orders had been delivered autonomously — but with a driver behind the wheel — since 2020. The grocer also touted a 100-per cent safety record.

Click to play video: 'Loblaw launches driverless trucks for PC Express food delivery'
Loblaw launches driverless trucks for PC Express food delivery

Loblaw noted that route would not necessarily be through residential neighbourhoods; the autonomous vehicles drive between distribution centres and local receiving points to fulfil the online grocery orders.

The repetitive and predictable nature of these routes are key to the autonomous driving use case, according to Gautam Narang, CEO of Gatik, the Silicon Valley tech firm partnering with Loblaw to provide the trucks’ technology. The company also launched autonomous deliveries with Walmart in the United States last year.

Narang, who has been working on validating self-driving tech for a decade, said he’s been hearing promises from tech evangelists that whole time that the long-promised fully autonomous driving future was “somehow, always three to four years out.”

Instead of shooting for that ever-shifting horizon, Narang told Global News when the Loblaw partnership was first announced in October that Gatik decided to focus on what was achievable: mastering the “middle mile” of transportation, that stretch between two distribution sites but after supplier deliveries and before reaching a customer’s doorstep.

“I strongly believe that commercialization and scaling of autonomous learning technology will happen in this middle mile first,” he said.

Having a short-haul route to prove out the technology first is critical for safety in its early adoption, according to Narang. He noted that with a set route for deliveries, operators can plan a route that avoids coming close to schools or that favours making three right turns over a riskier left.

Any “high-level” decisions beyond basic traffic instructions are still done by a remote operator outside the truck, Narang said, which prevents a vehicle from taking any radical decisions on its own to subvert an unforeseen disruption like a downed power wire.

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Melek says this decision-making power is a critical threshold that robotics has not yet passed. Having a human in the passenger seat or monitoring the tech from a control room will remain a part of our foreseeable future, he argues.

“What we’re seeing more and more is that fully autonomous, across-the-board (technology) still has a lot of challenges,” Melek says.

“What we’re kind of converging towards now … is something that is more collaborative. So there is always the human in the loop.”

At your service

Canada’s economy faces a short supply of human labour but a growing workforce of robots, and some experts say not all jobs in the food sector will be safe from disruption.

The national unemployment rate was a tight 5.1 per cent in November, not much higher than the record low of 4.9 per cent seen in June and July.

Employers south of the border have meanwhile seen the potential in automation to offset a similarly tight labour market: U.S. workplace orders for robots were up 40 per cent in the first quarter of 2022, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.

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Robots have also made the leap from food production to serving in some Canadian restaurants that make use of rolling, automated servers.

The owner of a Korean restaurant in Winnipeg told Global News earlier this year that the delivery bots make work easier for the human servers but don’t replace them, and the inhuman touch is a bonus for customers wary of viral transmission amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other circulating illnesses.

Click to play video: '‘Your delicious meal is here’: Robot among servers at Winnipeg restaurant'
‘Your delicious meal is here’: Robot among servers at Winnipeg restaurant

Fully automated baristas developed by Toronto tech firm RC Coffee have popped up on Canadian streets and even in hospitals in recent years, where contagion and labour shortages are both paramount concerns.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of automation, Dan Ciuriak, senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, told Global News this past summer. He pointed to China’s rapid adoption of contactless services through robots in the 2022 Beijing Olympics as a flashpoint for our automated future.

Ciuriak said front-of-line service industry positions, like RC Coffee’s baristas, are ripe for disruption. The company touts the maintenance of its machines as driving job creation, even if some barista positions are lost.

Melek says that one enduring legacy of the pandemic will be a preference that when it comes to getting food from farm to fork, the fewer human hands involved, the better.

“The more you’re able to minimize humans handling the food without sacrificing accuracy or the time of delivery to the end user, that is always a benefit and a big advantage,” he says.

Robot takeover or team up?

Back on the farm, Greenan says he expects Nexus Robotics’ machines will be ready for commercial use this coming summer. The robots would be leased out to farms for use during the growing season, he says.

In conversations with farmers, he says one of the biggest barriers to adoption so far has been that humans are naturally just very good at pulling weeds. The Nexus Robotics solution will need to be as efficient as possible to replace the human hand and eye, he says, aiming to remove 85-90 per cent of weeds in a cycle around the field.

But he and other robot enthusiasts believe automation will soon be integral to offset labour shortages in industries critical to the food supply chain.

Farmers cannot rely solely on migrant labour to do jobs that Greenan says are “frankly, demeaning” to ask workers to relocate to Canada for and only receive meagre pay in return.

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He also believes it’s a waste of talent for workers to be doing manual labour in the field when they could be working in air-conditioned pack-houses, for example, where their cognitive skills are put to use in more comfortable environments.

“It’s not like these people are just going to sit on their butts and not do anything. It’s just that there are more humane tasks that they could be doing,” he says.

Augmenting farms with robot workers and putting human capital to more productive uses will mean more efficient operations in Canadian farms and better output, Greenan argues.

After a year that saw food inflation routinely over 10 per cent year-over-year, he says consumers will eventually feel the relief of automation on their grocery bills just as farmers feel it on their bottom lines.

“If we can have the robots do these undesirable jobs, then it’ll help the farms be more profitable. It’ll help increase yields, and it’ll help consumers have more affordable food at the end of the day. And I think all of those are important for the sustainability of the farming industry going forward.”

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Melek says he doesn’t see humans leaving the food supply chain — or the passenger seat of a delivery truck, in a specific case — any time soon.

A future where human jobs are fully automated is, at best, 25 years out, he says. He believes the world ahead sees workers and robots working hand in hand to get food from farm to table.

“The fear that there will be loss of work that we were talking about 10 years ago because of how pervasive automation was, that hasn’t happened. It’s kind of now converging to something that is more collaborative,” Melek says.

Of course, if you’re not ready to embrace the robot future at the grocery store quite yet, a cashier will be happy to serve you in the next lane over.

— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola, Heidi Lee, Brittany Greenslade, Rosanna Hempel