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From growing to packaging: This is how the cannabis industry is automated

Cultivation techniques, more than modern, have always been rudimentary, evolving through trial and error, and knowledge has spread slowly, by word of mouth. Now that marijuana legalizations are skyrocketing, the way of harvesting is starting to move towards automation of the processes, which could limit human work in the near future. We tell you how this revolution will happen from your cannabis stealth grow box to big fabrics.

More and more countries are legalizing medical and recreational marijuana. Since then, the business has taken off and is estimated to provide more jobs than other public services by 2020, according to a report. But this has its nuances: While thousands of Americans aspire to work in the industry, the latest technology in horticulture is coming on strong.

The processes of planting, growing, harvesting, packing and selling are increasingly supported by computerized systems and the use of robots, something that does not sit well with the use of human resources, which are rather at risk. But to what extent can new tools make their way into our favourite plant industry?

What to sow

Normally, marijuana crops last a long time, three to five months. What if cannabis growers spent all that time growing varieties of plants that are not in demand? This is where databases come into play, providing real-time information on which ones are being sold at any given time, as well as useful documentation on which market areas to exploit.

The best example is Headset.io: an industry information analysis server that allows both producers and clinics to make this type of decision. Other platforms that computerize the process of your crop are also useful, such as GrowX (will launch its beta version this fall) or Leaf (paid).

Get the most out of your crop

Producing cannabis requires absolute precision in its care, both in the balance of light and in the balance of moisture and water to flourish. To deal with this in the best possible way, growers are investing in the Internet of Things through tools that control farms and reduce the risk of human error.

In this sense, ‘startups’ like Edyn have created sensors for large-scale crops, which can connect to the wifi by sending real-time data on temperature and soil acidity to a virtual cloud, among other factors, and then analyze them to optimize the harvest.

Jacob White, the head of cultivation at R. Greenleaf Organics, has always believed that “you can have the best varieties in the world, but if you don’t have a good environment, you are limited”. At the end of 2015, dusty mildew invaded his crop: this fungal disease that develops in high humidity conditions reduced economic profitability by 25 %. White attributes these losses to a lack of automatic controls and the use of conventional methods (such as non-programmable thermostats) due to a lack of budget.

In response, he installed controllers in each room that properly adjusted CO2 levels, humidity, temperature and lighting. Since the implementation of the system they have not had to deal with pests or fungi such as powdery mildew. Some materials handling systems may involve greater capital investment, but they are worth it because they present great opportunities for the cannabis industry.

Perhaps one of the reasons why some growers are hesitant about automation is their belief that the technology will steal people’s jobs rather than complement their work. But for R. Greenleaf Organics this has not been the case: science has helped employees to focus on other activities. “We can put all our energy into growing cannabis and spend less time worrying about environmental conditions,” explains White.

Protecting your plants

The larger the scale of a crop, the less free it is from intruders. To bet on a more solid protection, farms are using service robots like Hardcar Security. The company says these machines are not designed to replace security guards, but to help them detect intruders so they can call the authorities. Its CEO, Todd Kleperis, has said that at the moment they are not equipped with any kind of weapons, but that there are plans to add the pepper spray function in the future.

Automatic pruning

For its part, Bloom Automation has developed robots that use special cameras to peek at sheets that need to be removed. The best thing is that they can cut them themselves in as little as four minutes, as long as they do not exceed 45 centimetres. “We’re not taking anyone’s job away, but improving efficiency,” said Jon Gowa, the founder and CEO. The product will be available on the market by the end of 2017.

More rigorous packaging and labeling

One of the final stages, packaging, has also been automated to increase speed and be more accurate with weight. Meridian Merchandising is one of the companies that has dared to modernize this phase: it has created devices capable of packing marijuana with scientific precision, much faster than human resources.

Moreover, in order to comply with strict government regulations, the radio frequency identification system (RFID), connected to the Internet of Things, is also used for labelling. The aim is to limit illegal sales as much as possible and to ensure that only the best quality products are sold in dispensaries.

For example, La Clone Bar and Dispensary de La Conte, recreational marijuana outlets located in Denver, Colorado, have saved hours of work by using the automated Flowhub tag system to comply with city regulations, reducing the risk of fines or license withdrawals.

Delivery made easier

Some telemedicine providers such as Eaze often get a doctor’s recommendation through a video chat call.

With the number of machines set up to monitor crop levels, the robots created to perform good pruning, the companies allowing users to request their medical marijuana cards through the comfort of their couches, and the increasing use of marijuana vending machines, the need for human workers throughout the process from seed to sale is being limited. We’ll see what happens in the future.