Why robots just can’t grow good weed – Mashable


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By Morgan Sung2021-04-20 15: 01: 58 UTC

Cannabis farm production is at an all-time high, but it's unlikely that robots will take over the process anytime soon.
The stereotypical weed farm is either a sprawling expanse of crop tended to by free-spirited stoners, or a clandestine basement operation built on information gleaned from online forums. Modern cannabis farm facilities, with their climate controlled grow rooms and automatic irrigation techniques, are a stark departure from pop culture's preconceived notions of what a weed farm looks like. Though far more clinical than its cliché predecessor, the modern cannabis farm still does the bulk of cultivation by hand. Few, if any, other agricultural spaces use human labor over that of a machine's to the degree that cannabis farms do, but the quality-driven nature of weed requires fine motor skills and age-old intuition that technology hasn't adapted to yet. 
While the agricultural industry has relied on machinery for centuries, automation falls short in the cannabis sphere. The rise in states legalizing marijuana and the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp ushered in a "green rush" of farmers who could grow cannabis, and consumers who could finally buy it. Despite the growing demand, high-quality bud is a fragile crop, and machinery used in conventional agriculture isn't gentle enough to handle it. 
Outdoor farming is limited to areas with consistent sunlight and temperate climates, so most brands farm their weed indoors. Marijuana Business Daily reported that in 2018, more than 80 percent of California's recreational marijuana production capacity was from indoor facilities. But even indoor facilities, unencumbered by outdoor farming's natural limits and boosted by modern technology, require people to do a majority of the work. That isn't because the technology or machinery doesn't exist, but because a trained human being just does the job better than a robot. Agricultural technology may be leaps and bounds ahead of at-home grows 20 years ago, but reaching a Monsanto-level scale of operations is out of the picture for cannabis farms. For now, ensuring high-quality bud still requires significant human involvement. 
"TL;DR: It is easy to do. It is difficult to do well."
"Is marijuana really that difficult, fickle a plant to grow?" one Reddit user asked r/microgrowery, a subreddit for at-home cultivation. "I've never taken up the task, but I do a fair bit of gardening/growing plants/trees as a hobby in the backyard. I'm a fairly laissez-faire grower, and operate mostly on instinct and eyeballs and general knowledge. And I'm fairly successful. But in here, I see so much concern about pH balances, plant nutrients, pesticides, and lighting cycles that it kind of blows my mind. Why all the fuss? Is it because the plant is culturally rooted in a profit-per-growth equation?" 
Another Reddit user summed it up: "TL;DR: It is easy to do. It is difficult to do well." 
Good weed is hard to grow at a large scale
Even if arrogant, the original poster's quip about potential profit was on the money. Craft cannabis farms are hesitant to employ machinery used by industrialized agricultural giants because of weed's high investment, high profit nature. Conventional crops, like tomatoes, also require a controlled environment, thorough monitoring, and careful harvesting. Losing a few pounds of crop to disease, failure to grow, or damage during harvesting is expected. In a plant as costly and labor intensive as cannabis, however, those few pounds can cost a farm tens of thousands of dollars and months of labor. 

Growing weed isn't too difficult. Growing good weed is.
Image: courtesy of wonderbrett
Brett Feldman, co-founder of the eponymous cannabis brand Wonderbrett and long time grower, said quality weed is in such high demand because it's scarce. Growing cannabis is difficult, and growing weed that yields an enjoyable experience for the consumer is even more so — especially at the scale of a large farm. 
"Quality isn't easy," Feldman told Mashable recently during a tour of Wonderbrett's 180,000 square foot indoor grow facility in Long Beach, California. The facility boasts an impressive 36 grow rooms, each containing various strains in different stages of growth. Each room is monitored, irrigated, and tended to through a combination of new tech and traditional hands-on work.
"It's expensive, it's hard, [and] even with the people with the best intentions going out to try and do everything they can, they can miss for several years on trying to create something of quality," Feldman continued. 
High-quality weed is in higher demand as states legalize recreational marijuana. Before the days of legal weed, options were limited; nobody asked their dealer what terpenes were in their product. As of April 2021, 17 states and Washington, D.C. legalized marijuana, bringing fresh competition to the market, and exposing consumers better weed. 
He likens good bud to eating McDonald's for your entire life, and then trying a good burger. 
Cameron Damwijk, Wonderbrett's co-founder and engineer behind much of the facility's systems, added that most consumers didn't know how good higher quality cannabis could be until they try it. He likens good bud to eating McDonald's for your entire life, and then trying a good burger. You don't have to be a connoisseur to understand the difference between the dime bag you got in high school and the flower you can buy at dispensaries today. 
"And you're like, 'Well that's a good burger, I was eating [this] burger but that one's better. Now I know the next level of quality,'" Damwijk said. "And then it's...someone being able to see past that and go, 'I do notice that terpene or I do notice that smoothness.'"
Cannabis, for the most part, isn't especially difficult to grow. Dr. Anne Lacey Samuels, a botany professor at the University of British Columbia who researches cannabis structure, noted that low-THC hemp thrives naturally in the prairies. In an email to Mashable, she explained that the plant itself is pretty hardy. 
Growing high-THC, smokable flower is more challenging. It's a juggling act that involves genetics, thorough monitoring, and careful harvesting that all revolve around cultivating a mature plant's flower, colloquially known as bud. The gnarled, earthy nugget may not look like much, but its color, aroma, and texture affect the user's experience consuming whatever weed product the bud ends up in. From the live resin in dab rigs to the gummies you might pop before bed, all weed products start out as a sticky little bud. 
Shawn Lucas, an assistant professor of organic agriculture and hemp specialist at Kentucky State University, told Civil Eats that cannabis farming takes an understanding of horticulture beyond basic gardening. 
"If you're going without [an understanding of] basic biology and good quality soil, you'll be in trouble," he said.
Sometimes robots are less efficient than people
The process of growing weed can take 10 to 32 weeks for the plant to fully mature for harvesting. Growers can start from either a seed, or if they have an already mature plant, a cutting called a clone. Clones ensure a quicker growing process than germinating a seed, but they're also fragile because they're still developing roots to soak up nutrients. Aggressive handling or removing the clone from a temperate, humid environment could kill it before it roots, so indoor facilities still water them by hand. The robotic dexterity to handle a clone without damaging it may exist, but it's not accessible or cost effective when compared to a trained person. 

A worker waters delicate clones by hand.
Image: courtesy of wonderbrett
Growers also have to be vigilant about protecting plants from pests, viruses, and mold — Wonderbrett requires anyone entering the facility to walk through an air-blasting decontamination room — as decontaminating the plants themselves can affect the crop. Gassing a grow room with ozone or hydrogen peroxide to rid it of mold, for example, can not only brown the surface of the plants and affect its taste and potency, but also puts employees at risk of inhaling toxic fumes. Another decontaminating technique called radiofrequency uses radio waves to generate heat to kill microbes, but it can also burn the flower. To prevent taking measures as drastic as those decontamination methods, a grower could simply visually assess the plant and nip issues in the bud (literally) before it gets out of hand.
 In theory, one could design a machine learning program to catch potential issues early on, but again, that's not as accessible or cost effective as a trained eye. 
Enhancing the growing process 
There are elements of the indoor growing process that have been enhanced by some level of automation. The uptick in newly legalized home grows also created a demand for personal automated climate control systems; Green Goddess Supply sells furniture-like grow boxes called "The Armoire" that include timed LED lights, a temperature and humidity reader, ventilation fans, and a WiFi connected camera to monitor the plant's growth for $1,495. Cultivation startup Grobo takes the souped up grow tent even further by automatically watering and fertilizing the plant within — for $2,299, home growers just have to drain the closet's tank once a week, refill it with fresh water, and let the closet automate the rest. 
At a farming scale, it's not as simple as planting a seed in a box and occasionally checking in via app, but modern farming systems use the same concept. The room's humidity, carbon dioxide levels, hours of light exposure, airflow, and nutrients administered all affect the weed's quality. Seemingly innocuous hiccups like a dip in temperature or too few hours of light can stunt the plant's ability to produce prized buds, so indoor grow facilities opt for automatic systems that can time light cycles and regulate the climate. 
When I visited Wonderbrett, for example, leaving the door open for a hair too long triggered the room's system to automatically release more carbon dioxide. Each room had its own set of meters to monitor humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide, and a change from the ideal threshold would trigger the system to correct it. Damwijk noted that having a record of humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels has been helpful in playing with the formula to improve each harvest. Still, those levels have to be manually adjusted every few weeks throughout the grow cycle, instead of automatically adjusting to preset stats. Damwijk doesn't know of any software that would allow growers to plan out a humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide adjustments for a whole grow cycle, for multiple grows concurrently.