California-based company Iron Ox has just launched its first fully autonomous farm, run entirely by robots and artificial intelligence (AI). The agritech startup seems to have taken precision farming to a new level. According to Iron Ox, the farm can “grow 30 times more produce than traditional farms” owing to AI software, year-round hydroponic processes, and making more efficient use of space by moving plants around as they grow. The robot farm is the brainchild of co-founders Brandon Alexander and Jon Binney, both engineers.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, instead, using mineral nutrient solutions in water. The technique has several advantages over traditional farming ― it uses less water, is completely sterile, and makes more efficient use of space. The downside is that hydroponic farms require more labour. Based on the rate of growth, each plant must be transferred one by one through a series of different growing vats. Within this farm, however, robots do all the heavy lifting. Although, humans are still responsible for seeding and some of the post-harvest processes such as packaging.
Iron Ox has two robotic systems: a 450-kg bot on wheels named Angus that moves seedlings around the warehouse in their hydroponic “grow modules” in which leafy greens and herbs are grown in individual pots and a robotic arm that picks up individual plants and moves them from module to module. The entire process is run by a cloud-based AI software, nicknamed “the Brain,” monitored by a team of plant scientists. The brain takes data from the robots and various sensors and promptly sends back instructions to the robots on which tasks to perform and when. It can also adjust the balance of gases and nutrients in each pot for optimal growing conditions.
The entire 186 meters-squared space houses 1.2 x 2.4 m of these grow modules. Since 2015, the farm has grown around 26,000 heads of lettuce, leafy greens, and herbs each year. Iron Ox will begin selling some of its produce to local restaurants and grocery stores later this year and plans to open additional farms around other cities in the US ― urban locations will reduce transportation times and costs. To reach this stage, the team at Iron Ox had to solve an enormous array of technical problems, and another ever-present stumbling block is cost.
The high-tech indoor farm will have to compete on price with modern outdoor farms that have spent decades optimising their farming practices and can produce huge amounts of produce at a relatively low cost. Jonathan Gill, co-founder an automated farming project in the UK, HandsFree Hectare, told The Verge, the reason only “minimal amounts” of the global agricultural industry have been automated to date is simply that it’s not “economically viable” to do so. At the moment, robots are just not good enough and human labour is much cheaper. He says, “It’s just not necessarily the most efficient method of growing food for the world.”
The agricultural industry faces a number of challenges including pressure to produce more crops to achieve global food security as well as labour shortages. Referring to these major issues facing agriculture at present, Alexander told the Guardian, “We need to do something drastic; we need to do something radical to fix this, not just make something 5% or 10% more efficient.”
Image source: Iron Ox