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Farming is hard work. The U.S.’s more than two million farms employ roughly 925,000 people to perform tasks like planting, seeding, and inspection, contributing to total production expenses of $350 billion in 2017. But without a rise in agricultural productivity by at least 60 percent, the world might not grow enough for the projected global population by 2050.
The looming crises inspired the cofounders of Iron Ox, a three-year-old San Carlos startup, to tap a database of horticultural knowledge and robotics in designing an indoor farm of the future. It isn’t the only company to apply automation to farming — New Jersey firm Aerofarms leans heavily on intelligent machines, as do startups Bower and Plenty — but it claims it’s the first to fully automate the growing process end-to-end.
Iron Ox is the brainchild of CEO and cofounder Brandon Alexander, who previously worked at robotics lab Willow Garage and later Google parent company Alphabet’s secretive X division (the R&D lab behind Google Glass, self-driving car spinoff Waymo, and Loon). He and cofounder Jon Binney, Iron Ox’s CTO, set out to drive down produce prices toward the goal of sustainably feeding 10 billion people.
“At Iron Ox, we’ve designed our entire grow process with a robotics-first approach,” Alexander said. “That means not just adding a robot to an existing process, but engineering everything … around our robots.”
Iron Ox’s first 1,000-square-foot farm, which is in full production as of this week, taps a robotic arm equipped with a camera and computer vision systems that can analyze plants at sub-millimeter scale and execute tasks like planting and seeding. A 1,000-pound mobile transport system roughly the size of a car, meanwhile, delivers harvested produce — including leafy greens such as romaine, butterhead, and kale, and herbs like basil, cilantro, and chives — using sensors and collision avoidance systems “similar to that of a self-driving car.” And cloud-hosted software acts as a sort of brain of the system, ingesting data from embedded sensors and using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect pests, forecast diseases, and “ensure cohesion across all parts.”
It might sound pricey tech, but Alexander and company said they worked to keep costs down by using off-the-shelf parts and implementing a scalable transport system. (The plants, which grow in a tightly-spaced grid pattern, are delivered via trays.) Other savings come from high-efficiency LED lighting and a hydroponic growing system that cuts down on unnecessary water usage by 90 percent.
Iron Ox claims that within a year, produce sales will be able to cover its initial investment. That’s critical at a time when agricultural incomes are on the decline; between 2013 and 2017, there was a 45 percent drop in net farm income, the largest three-year downswing since the start of the Great Depression.
At the moment, Iron Ox isn’t an entirely autonomous operation — a plant science team taps the data coming in to formulate standard operating procedures toward ensuring food safety, plant health, and crop growth. This hybrid approach enables the farm to respond to individual plants’ needs, cofounder and CTO Jon Binney says, and has the potential to produce 30 percent more produce per acre (about 26,000 heads of lettuce and other greens) than traditional growing operations.
“We’re not just growing sustainable and affordable produce; we’re capturing huge amounts of actionable data,” Binney said. “This trove of data means we 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.”
To date, Iron Ox has raised $6 million in seed funding. It intends to sell its produce to restaurants and grocery stores in the coming months, and in 2019, plans to expand to additional locations.