Farming may never be the same again – and it’s all down to robots

A Californian startup has launched an autonomous robotic farm aiming to solve some of agriculture’s biggest challenges.

Iron Ox plans to harness AI, robotics and hydroponics and fix the industry’s labour shortages, minimise food waste and deliver unprecedented yields.

Crops are held in an 8,000 sq ft (743 sq m) warehouse, maximising natural light. The hydroponics increase efficiency by using less water while being sterile. However, until now this method was labour-intensive, with plants needing to be moved as they grow – either by humans or by tractors. That’s where the robotics and automation come in…

30X more productive

Iron Ox’s hydroponic process ‘takes a human led, robotics-first approach to ensure every plant is grown at its best from seed to harvest.’

Plants start off in densely packed hydroponics trays, filled with water enriched with nutrients. Once they start growing, a robotic arm moves them to larger trays. The arm comes with a camera, which builds a 3D image of the plant and gathers colour images. The robot arm then monitors changes in shape, colour and size to check for any potential problems. Machine learning is also deployed, to anticipate, prevent and contain potential diseases or infestations.

farmer with watering can
Iron Ox says its ‘hydroponic growing system uses 90% less water over traditional farming’

After a period of seeding and transplanting, the robotic arm can work out the optimum time for harvesting. It’s all overseen by a computer program, nicknamed ‘The Brain’. This monitors how well each tray is growing and adjusts the balance and levels of nutrients accordingly.

Trays are placed inside greenhouses, for two reasons.

One, to harness and maximise the power of the sun.

Two, to remove the challenges of the changing seasons – the constant temperature means farmers can ‘grow over 30x per acre compared to an outdoor farm’, according to Brandon Alexander. The co-founder and CEO of Iron Ox previously worked at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and Willow Garage, a renowned robotics lab and technology incubator. Jon Pinney, the other co-founder, is Iron Ox’s CTO and regarded as one of the world’s leading robotics engineers.

While the robotic arm cares for the plants, another form of robot does the heavy manual work. ‘Angus’ weighs 1,000 lbs (453kg) and transports Iron Ox’s produce (currently limited to leafy greens and herbs).

Augmenting, not replacing

Of course, this new method of farming isn’t about going 100% robotic. Iron Ox still relies on humans to package the final product and arrange logistics. What’s more, for some parts of the world, implementing the technology represents a bigger investment than current workforce salaries.

However, Iron Ox has stated its intention to scale up and compete with outdoor agricultural producers.

What’s more, this method offers a potential solution to the growing risks from climate change. For example, a UN report predicts water shortages could affect 5 billion people by 2050.

And perhaps most significantly, the nascent industry is attracting major investment. For example, AI-powered robotics company Root AI recently raised $2.3 million. Focusing on indoor farming, Root AI intends to build intelligent robots that will support the growth of ‘smart farms’. Its technology is designed to identify when fruits are ripe and ready to pick – even in complicated climates.

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