WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As global population grows we need new ways to produce affordable quality food, and vertical farms are increasingly the answer.
Vertical farms that can grow eight times the crops using no chemicals, herbicides or pesticides, and with 99 percent less water than traditional farms have been hitting the news now for some years now, and their popularity is growing with even Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, throwing over $200million at the technology. But now, following on from the unveiling of the world’s first fully automated traditional farm, US agri-tech start up Iron Ox have announced they’ve created one of the world’s first fully autonomous vertical farms in California, something Japanese company Spread promised to deliver at a larger scale a while ago, and the development will help bring the cost of manufacturing food in this way to below that of food produced using traditional farming methods, with the additional benefit of improved sustainability.
For now the test is small scale, and at the moment the hydroponic indoor farm relies on two robots to plant, care for and harvest produce. One of the robots is 1,000 pounds and about the size of a car. It picks up the trays of plants and transports them around the greenhouse. A second machine, a robotic arm, is responsible for all the fine manipulation tasks, like seeding and transplanting.
See the technology in action
As a tray of plants matures, the mobile robot carries it to the processing area. Here, the robotic arm moves baby plants in densely packed trays to containers with more space. This optimizes space efficiency, because throughout their life cycle, plants are only given the room they need.
Co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander claimed that Iron Ox is able to do the equivalent of 30 acres of outdoor farming in just a single acre on its robotic farm, and the company wants to build more small farms near urban centers so produce is fresher upon arrival.
“Right now fresh produce really isn’t all that fresh. It’s traveling on average 2,000 miles from farm to grocery store, which means a lot of people are eating week-old lettuce or strawberries, ” Alexander explained.
The robots at Iron Ox also use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine vision to detect pests and diseases, and they can remove infected plants before the problem spreads.
“So it’s not just that the robots can move plants around and very efficiently, it’s also that they can help you avoid ever having a plant go bad,” co-founder and CTO Jon Binney explained.
Iron Ox is not the only venture-backed indoor farm. Others, like Bowery and Plenty, who I’ve discussed before, also aim to use the latest technology to sustainably produce crops near cities. However, Iron Ox is the first to fully automate the growing process and completely design its system around the robot’s capabilities.
“So one of the great things about the robots is that they don’t really get tired and they don’t really care what hours they work. And so as long as they’ve got juice in the batteries, they can keep going,” Binney said.
Though Iron Ox grows its produce using LED lights, in the future it hopes to build natural-light greenhouses to take advantage of the sun’s free energy. Eventually, the company aims to make its non-GMO and pesticide-free produce as cheap as traditional agriculture.
Initially, Iron Ox is only growing leafy greens and herbs, though it plans to expand into other crops, like tomatoes, in the coming years. The company plans to begin selling its produce later this year.
To date, Iron Ox has raised $6 million in seed funding, led by Eniac Ventures.