Cannabis and robots; until recent years, the two had never formally been introduced. They may have crossed paths in the odd addled fantasy. But in the material world? One was made to automate hard labor, the other is famed for reducing it. A highly unlikely pairing.
But times have changed. As legislation passed and demand grew, the cannabis industry kicked into full gear and suddenly found itself in need of, well, gears, as well as pistons, computer circuits, and all manner of machine parts.
Because the age of robots had arrived, and it was just in time to help check if cannabis batches were free of microbes, pathogens, and other contaminants. While not quite the robot invasion many sci-fi futurists of the 20th century had in mind, automated machines really are entering the cannabis industry in full force.
At the cultivation-end of the sector, machines like those built by Bloom Automation are freeing up human workers to fulfil other tasks, while the drones keep farming. The Boston-based start-up boast that, thanks to its advanced image recognition technology, its robots can “trim with the precision and care of a human,” and help reduce costs by 5-10 times.
And over in the cannabis testing labs, other organized gizmos are trimming away at assay times.
“If a customer wants to use a particular kit or device, we’ll make that work with our liquid handling systems and offer guidance to automate the entire workflow,” says Ryan Ghan, PhD, market segment leader for industrial sciences at Hamilton Company.
Highly regarded for its liquid handling machines, Hamilton produces the targeted and applied workstations found in analytical labs all over the world. Now, like so many others that have watched the cannabis industry skyrocket, the company is branching out and keen to automate the cannabis lab space.
A pioneer in cannabis genetic testing, Medicinal Genomics provides products that can determine cannabis plant sex and test cannabis flower or marijuana infused product (MIP) samples for pathogenic microbials. And while not exactly known for their slowness, the genetic platforms are now set to get a speed boost from Hamilton. In an ongoing partnership, the two have specifically optimized a series of Medicinal Genomics cannabis assays for use with Hamilton’s automated liquid handling workstations.
Speaking to Analytical Cannabis, Ghan explained how Hamilton and Medicinal Genomics came to partner and why now was the right time to step into the industry.
“Medicinal Genomics makes a variety of different detection primer kits for things like pathogens and plant sex testing, as well as plant and microbial DNA extraction testing kits. And we've automated those initially on our smaller Microlab NIMBUS platform,” he says.
“However, we do all kinds of DNA extraction workflows on our automation platforms in a variety of different market spaces. So, it's novel in that we're applying it to cannabis, but it's not our only area of expertise.”
With some available models reaching two meters in length, a Hamilton liquid handling system can look more like a microwave with a gym membership than a simple pipetting tool. Able to complete entire lab processes in a hand-free manner, the systems increase sample throughput and free analysts to perform higher order tasks – a major time saver that now extends to Medicinal Genomics’ assay kits.
“Another benefit by doing it via automation is you have consistency from run-to-run,” says Ghan.
“Whereas, you might have the lab technician who's distracted on Monday morning or tired in the afternoon after eating lunch, they're not necessarily focusing on accurately transferring a sample via pipetting from one well to the next. So that's where automation can take over, as well as just the overall throughput is greater. This frees the analyst or lab tech to perform other tasks in the lab like analyzing data.”
Of course, the cannabis matrix is notoriously challenging. Unlike other commonly analyzed plant matter, such as fruits and vegetables that have straightforward sampling and established food safety testing procedures, cannabis test protocols need to account for the different matrices, including flowers, extracts, and a wide range of edibles and beverages. Protocols must be adapted and validated to the specific matrix and, in the case of edibles and beverages, account for additional ingredients in the sample, like fats in chocolate or gas in a carbonated beverage. To comb through the array of sample types and tease out unique chemical compounds, analysts need tools fit for the job, as Ghan explains.
“Cannabis can be a challenging matrix depending upon how you're encountering it,” explains Ghan. “It’s different than, say, testing strawberries or different kinds of lettuce. It can come in a variety of different forms like concentrates or extracts, or you might find it in edibles like chocolate bars, cookies, brownies, gummies, etc.”
“So, actually getting that DNA out of that source matrix can be a bit challenging, but it's something that we're pretty experienced at handling.”
But whether a challenge or not, Ghan is confident that the days of cannabis and robots working together are far from over.
“We see it as definitely a space that we can grow in,” he says. “The challenging thing for cannabis, at least within the United States, is just how fragmented the space is. And so it's really challenging to offer a one-size-fits-all workflow for California when you're trying to sell something into Colorado or Washington State and they all have different testing requirements.”
“I think our real strength is that our programming software and our instruments are very flexible in terms of changing parameters to account for some of these differences.”