Californian robotics company Iron Ox claims to be ‘reinventing farming from the ground up’, as it unveils an autonomous indoor farm that leverages the latest advancements in arable science, machine learning, and robotics.
Indoor farms see harvesting, seeding and plant inspections occur thousands of times a day – tasks perfectly suited to robots. Iron Ox is using the latest in machine learning and computer vision to enable its robots to respond to the needs of individual plants.
The farm is now in full production, thanks to its two key proprietary robotics systems – a robotic arm and a mobile transport. They work cohesively, with the latter using sensors and computer vision technology more typically seen in a self-driving car. The robotic arm, meanwhile, can analyse each plant at sub-millimetre scale.
Iron Ox’s own cloud software monitors the wealth of data produced by these systems in real-time, while a plant science team operates behind the scenes to ensure plant health, crop growth and food safety, as well as implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Iron Ox co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander previously worked at robotics lab Willow Garage and Alphabet’s experimental arm, X. He explained the company’s forward-looking take on indoor farming:
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, including our own hydroponic grow system, around our robots.
The indoor farm is currently focused on increasing the availability, quality and flavour of leafy greens including romaine lettuce, butterhead lettuce, and kale – as well as culinary herbs including basil, cilantro, and chives.
The future of autonomous farming
However, the implications of what is being achieved at Iron Ox go much further than the quality of its greens. With the World Resources Institute estimating that the global population will increase to 10 billion by 2050, food production will need to improve dramatically – all while facing labour issues, energy consumption challenges, and climate change.
Approaches like Iron Ox’s could go a long way to alleviating these key issues. The company claims that it can grow 30 times more produce per acre than traditional farms. Despite this, it operates very sustainably, leveraging both the sun and efficient LED lighting, as well as a hydroponic growing system that uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming.
“We’re not just growing sustainable and affordable produce; we’re capturing huge amounts of actionable data,” said Jon Binney, Iron Ox’s co-founder and CTO.
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 data set of plants in addition to highly accurate algorithms for disease identification.
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Despite a relatively small budget – Iron Ox has raised $6 million in seed funding to date – and small-scale production, the farm’s results speak to the increasingly automated nature of arable farming. With it comes huge savings in water, space and labour costs, but the flip side of that is the effect on the millions of farm workers around the world who stand to lose their jobs.
With agriculture forming an integral part to both our sustenance and economies, regulators and governments must wrestle with a seemingly impossible dichotomy.
Yet the same could be said for the mechanisation of agriculture a century ago, when a threshing machine could do the work of several workers, in a fraction of the time.
With great technological change often comes conflict and social upheaval that needs to be managed sensitively and responsibly, so that we can progress and support a growing global population in the face of increasing environmental concerns.
It’s also important to remember that behind the scenes at Iron Ox a team of 15 employees support the smooth running of the farm and successful development of its robots – jobs that wouldn’t exist were it not for the drive for innovation that’s happening there. Of course, that also raises questions around the financial viability of the project at its current scale.
We’ve reported previously on the massive effect disease has on crop yields, and how IoT can help tackle the issue. Italian start-up Evja is tapping into this opportunity, with its smart agriculture platform for salad growers.