New autonomous farm wants to produce food without human workers

Iron Ox isn’t like most robotics companies. Instead of trying to flog you its technology, it wants to sell you food.

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As the firm’s co-founder Brandon Alexander puts it: “We are a farm and will always be a farm.”

But it’s no ordinary farm. For starters, the company’s 15 human employees share their workspace with robot workers who quietly go about the business of tending for rows and rows of leafy greens.

Today Iron Ox is opening its first production facility in San Carlos, near San Francisco. The 8000 square foot indoor hydroponic facility—which is attached to the the startup’s offices—will be producing leafy greens at a rate of roughly 26,000 a year. That’s the production level of a typical outdoor farm that might be five times bigger. The opening is the next big step towards fulfilling the company's grand vision: to create a fully-autonomous farm where software and robotics fill the place of human agricultural workers—which are currently in short supply.

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Courtesy of Iron Ox

Iron Ox isn’t selling any of the food it produces just yet (it is still in talks with a number of local restaurants and grocers). So, for now, those tens of thousands of heads of lettuce are going to a local food bank and to the company salad bar. Its employees had better love eating lettuce.

The farm’s non-lettuce consuming staff consists of a series of robotic arms and movers. The arms individually pluck the plants from their hydroponic trays, and transfer them to new trays as the crops increase in size, maximizing their health and output—a luxury most outdoor farms don't have. Big white mechanical movers carry these various 800 pound water-filled trays around the facility.

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Courtesy of Iron Ox

At first, making sure these different machines work together was tricky. “We had different robots doing different tasks, but they weren’t integrated together into a production environment,” says Alexander.

So Iron Ox has developed software—nicknamed “The Brain”— to get them to collaborate. Like an all-seeing eye, it keeps watch over the farm, monitoring things like nitrogen levels, temperature, and robot location. It orchestrates where both robot and human attention is needed.

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Yes, although most of the operation is automated, it still does require a bit of human input. Currently, workers help with the seeding and post production of crops, but Alexander says he hopes to automate these parts of the process.

But why go through the trouble of automating farming at all?

For Alexander, he sees it as solving two problems in one: the shortage of agricultural workers and the distances at which fresh produce currently have to be shipped. Rather than eliminating jobs, they are hoping the robots will fill the gaps in the industry’s workforce.

And by inserting these farms close to urban areas—without the need to pay city level salaries—he believes stores will chose their produce because of it’s fresher than vegetables that had to travel thousands of miles to get there. That is, assuming, the startup can get their prices to match those of their traditional competitors.

Courtesy of Iron Ox

“The problem with the indoor is the initial investment in the system,” says Yiannis Ampatzidis, agricultural engineering assistant professor at the University of Florida. “You have to invest a lot up front. A lot of small growers can’t do that.” This could risk creating gap between the big farming institutions and smaller family-owned operations, in terms of gaining access to new technology.

Despite this, Ampatzidis says that indoor and outdoor farming automation solutions are necessary to help a wider swatch of the agricultural industry solve the long-standing labor shortage.

“If we don’t find another way to bring people [to the US] for labor, automation is the only way to survive,” says Ampatzidis.

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