Todd LaytRobots in the plant nursery

In late 2015 the International Plant Propagators’ Society (IPPS) hosted its international tour in the south east of the USA. One of the most interesting parts of the tour was watching robots move plants at multiple nurseries. These robots are now part of mainstream nursery production in the USA.

Robotic plant mover in action. Photo Todd Layt, Ozbreed

Robotic plant mover in action. Photo Todd Layt, Ozbreed

Robotic plant mover in action Photo Ozbreed

Robotic plant mover in action Photo Ozbreed

For now they are mainly used to space plants. The climate there is very humid and hot in summer, and very cold in winter. Often the plants are spaced closer together in the extremes of winter and summer, which helps protect them from heat or cold damage. In spring and autumn they are spaced further apart. Also as sales occur and spaces open up, the robots are often used to consolidate the plants. Prior to the robots this was done by hand.

Watch how the robots quickly and efficiently move plants around…

According to some of the growers, the payback period in labour savings is one year after purchase. They cost about $30,000 each. The military grade batteries last a number of hours, and can be swapped when discharged. Usually one person looks after 4 to 8 robots, resetting them if problems occur. These are not toys, and they can work day and night, and over less than ideal nursery ground conditions. All the nurseries named their robots, some after footballers, and some after passed away loved ones.

Robotic plant mover Photo Ozbreed

Robotic plant mover Photo Ozbreed

The future ideas for these robots include them working with other machinery. They could move plants to pruning machines, or fertilising and spraying machines. They do have some competition when it comes to moving plants and spacing in growing areas, including forklift attachments, which automatically space a number of plants on the ground, although many of the nurseries saw the need for both systems, as the forklifts cannot do everything.

Robotic plant mover in action. Photo Todd Layt Ozbreed

Robotic plant mover in action. Photo Todd Layt Ozbreed

While these robots are not currently used in Australian plant production nurseries, I think that they would be useful here due to the high cost of labour. However as we don’t have the same requirement for changing plant pot spacing in summer and winter, I can see them being more useful for bringing plants to and from another machine, such as a pruning machine.

The IPPS tour itself had many other highlights, including lean flow dispatch systems that were amazingly organised, and a number of good growing tips. For example, we were shown how to keep frost out of hot houses using steam from a simply constructed boiler, and many tips of how to propagate cutting grown plants. Large tree growers looked at a multiple number of techniques of how to stop trees blowing over in the wind, using stakes, or special tie downs that are now widely used in the industry.

A lot of great times were had by all on the tour, and plenty of networking took place. Sharing was the theme of the tour, and nurseries from around the world shared their propagation ideas. The 2016 tour is in the south island of New Zealand. Find out more at the International Plant Propagators’ Society.

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Todd Layt

About Todd Layt

Todd was the author of Drought Tolerant Gardening Guide, 2009, ISBN; 978-0-646-50860-3. He has written for the Landscape Contractor and the Landscape Manager magazines for 10 years. For many years he ran turf farms and a large production nursery. Now he is director and owner of Ozbreed Pty Ltd, breeding many native and exotic plants, as well as turf varieties including Sapphire Buffalo, and Nara Native turf.  

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