No Human Needed: Iron Ox Could Grow 30 Times More Produce Than Regular Farms

October 8, 2018 - 7 minutes read

Iron Ox isn’t your average AI development or robotics company. Rather than shove its technology down your throat, it’d prefer for you to snack on some lettuce.

But while Brandon Alexander, the company’s CEO and co-founder, says, “We are a farm and will always be a farm,” it isn’t stopping the firm from advancing agriculture with unprecedented innovation.

The Problem With Produce

The United States alone is home to more than 2 million farms that employ approximately 925,000 people. In 2017, production expenses reached $350 billion. But even with these astronomical figures, the world is actually in need of more agricultural workers. In fact, if agricultural productivity does not increase by 60 percent, we may not be able to accommodate the predicted global population by 2050.

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Enter Iron Ox. Located about an hour outside of San Francisco, the development company is on a mission to not only drive down produce prices but to sustainably feed 10 billion people as well. And the company’s founders are well-equipped to take on this lofty goal.

Brandon Alexander previously worked at robotics research lab Willow Garage and Alphabet’s X division, the R&D wing behind Waymo and Google Glass. John Binney, the company’s CTO, also came from Willow Garage and service industry robotics company Savioke.

An Indoor Farm for the Future

Iron Ox recently opened its first hydroponic facility, which is attached to its offices in San Carlos. Encompassing 8,000 square feet, the production space can yield 26,000 heads of leafy greens per year — the typical production of an outdoor farm five times its size. Binney says the facility has the potential to grow 30 times more produce per acre than a traditional operation.

While the company currently has 15 human employees, the real stars of the show are the robots: “At Iron Ox, we’ve designed our entire grow process with a robotics-first approach. That means not just adding a robot to an existing process, but engineering everything … around our robots,” says Alexander.

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Iron Ox’s robotic arms, which are equipped with custom computer vision systems, can analyze plants on a sub-millimeter scale and take care of the actual planting and seeding tasks. As the plants increase in size, the arms pluck and transfer them to new trays to optimize their output. Then, a half-ton mobile transport carriage similar to a self-driving car moves these 800-pound trays to other parts of the facility with the help of a collision avoidance system.

Brain Power

The company strove to keep equipment costs down by utilizing as many off-the-shelf parts as possible and building their transport system to be easily scalable. They’ve also managed to make substantial savings from high-efficiency LED grow lights and an efficient hydroponic system that cuts water usage down by 90 percent.

But perhaps the company’s greatest creation is their AI software, known as “The Brain.” Making all of the machines collaborate together proved to be a tricky ordeal. Alexander says, “We had different robots doing different tasks, but they weren’t integrated together into a production environment.”

The brain acts as an all-seeing eye, monitoring data like temperature, robot location, and nitrogen levels. It can also detect pests and forecast diseases. With all of this information, the Brain streamlines management of the entire facility.

End-to-End Automation Is the Goal

While most of Iron Ox’s operations are automated, a bit of human touch is still required at key points. Employees still help with the seeding and processing of the crops to ensure plant health and food safety. This hybrid approach has proven to be immensely helpful.

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“We’re not just growing sustainable and affordable produce; we’re capturing huge amounts of actionable data,” explains Binney. “This trove of data means that we can make sure every plant leaving our farm is perfect, and we will have the world’s largest dataset of plants and highly accurate algorithms for disease identification.”

Preserving the integrity of these insights is paramount. Eventually, Alexandar would like to maintain this while still achieving complete automation.

Planting the Seeds for a Better Future

So far, Iron Ox has raised a total of $6 million in seed funding. It isn’t selling any of its produce just yet. All of that kale, basil, cilantro, chives, and romaine are currently going to local food banks and the company’s own salad bar. The firm plans to expand to additional locations during 2019 and start selling its produce to restaurants and grocers in the coming months.

The way Alexandar sees it, the automation of farming brings a couple of key advantages: It helps tackle the shortage of agricultural workers and could also cut down the distance that fresh produce has to travel by bringing growing locations closer to urban areas. But there is an issue with cost.

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“The problem with the indoor [farm] is the initial investment in the system,” explains Yiannis Ampatzidis, a University of Florida agricultural engineering professor. “You have to invest a lot up front. A lot of small growers can’t do that.” Still, Ampatzidis does see automation as a necessary solution to the long-standing labor shortage problem. “If we don’t find another way to bring people [to the US] for labor, automation is the only way to survive.”

Iron Ox says that produce sales can cover the initial investment costs within a year of operation. It’s exciting to see where the company goes (and grows) from here. What are your thoughts on automated agriculture? Let us know in the comments!

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