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Robots Who Farm: “The Formula 1 Pit Crew of Greenhouses”

Brandon Alexander traveled to his grandparents’ farm each summer. Whether because he genuinely did not enjoy the family business or because he merely dreaded the hard work in the Texas heat as any child might, he instead pursued a future in robotics, even attaining a coveted spot as a software engineer at Google. But in 2015, he quit what was a dream job for any computer science major to return to the industry he had once shunned. As he explains in a blog post, “I’d entered robotics because I felt its power to change the world for the better in my bones. But despite how big we were and how lofty our goals were, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was an opportunity to have an even bigger impact.” 

Alexander went to California to see how he could use robotics to make tasks like weeding and harvesting more efficient but instead found a whole host of more significant problems: scarce water, labor shortages, parades of pests. Such issues are not limited to California, either.

The agricultural sector requires 70 percent of globally available fresh water, but its precious output frequently does not reach an ultimate consumer; 40 percent of fruits and vegetables are wasted.

So, Alexander founded California-based Iron Ox to “rebuild the whole damn system with automation and efficiency baked into every bit of it.”

Iron Ox’s Gilroy, CA Greenhouse. Image provided by Iron Ox

Today, Iron Ox is a flourishing company operating robotic greenhouses in California and Texas that grow various leafy greens and fruits under natural sunlight. Iron Ox is also organized for delivery within a limited geographic radius; the fresh produce reaches local retail outlets like Whole Foods within a day of being harvested. 

The key to these operations is a process of data gathering, using robots and artificial intelligence that allows for incredible levels of precision. This means that each plant gets exactly the right amount of sunshine, water, and nutrients, and the system is continually refined and improved for better results. “There’s always a better way,” the Iron Ox website reads. Indeed, this process has already allowed Iron Ox to enhance efficiency by speeding up growing cycles; to churn out more products by increasing yield per plant and detecting pests or diseases before they can spread, and to better align what is grown with what is shipped by predicting their entire crop yield more accurately. 

Basil in Retail. Image provided by Iron Ox

Even though Iron Ox is not the only indoor farm out there, it is unique in its entirely automated growing process, designed around two robots. Grover, a “mobile support robot,” moves the crops to scanning booths that determine what they need and then to the appropriate locations for follow-up tasks like watering and harvesting. It can lift the 6-by-6 foot, 1,000-pound plant modules and easily carry them around the greenhouses. Meanwhile, Phil delivers water and nutrients to each plant module (in under two minutes per module) after Grover delivers them. Phil also tracks those vitals by taking samples and analyzing them with sensors, so it can refill precisely as needed for optimal nutrient and pH levels. Together, they are the “Formula 1 pit crew of greenhouses.” 

Iron Ox’s Lockhart Greenhouse, Aerial View. Image provided by Iron Ox.

This closed-loop system results in huge advantages for the environment, as Alexander explained in a press release: “We are applying technology to minimize the amount of land, water, and energy needed to nourish a growing population. The team at Iron Ox will not stop until we achieve our long-term mission of making the produce sector carbon negative.” The Iron Ox model is well on its way to achieving that goal, generating 30 times more produce per acre than traditional field farms while using 90 percent less water and 15 times less land. 

The past year has already been eventful for Iron Ox. A new 535,000-square-foot greenhouse in Lockhart, Texas that broke ground in August brings 100 jobs to the city and is expected to deliver its first harvest later this year. Plus, a $53 million funding round in September brought Iron Ox’s total funding to $98 million. What is next? A robotic future for farming is on its way, as Alexander explains: “Ultimately, I want to tackle agriculture’s inefficiencies at every point in the equation. That means growing better food and more of it, at prices everyone can afford.” 

Iron Ox’s Lockhart Greenhouse, Aerial View. Image provided by Iron Ox.

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