Iron Ox: Indoor Farms Which Replace Humans with State-of-the-Art Robots

31/12/2018

In a 2,000 square foot warehouse in San Carlos, California, USA, a 1,000-pound robot named “Angus” lifts and transports trays of hydroponically grown crops to a processing area where a robotic arm carefully harvests each plant. This is Iron Ox’s fully autonomous indoor farm, where robots and Artificial Intelligence do the bulk of the work.

The Iron Ox indoor farm has been years in the making. Not only are these types of agricultural robots very challenging to build but getting them to be as precise and reliable as required is incredibly difficult. Angus is an omnidirectional, self-driving robot which autonomously navigates the farm. He does the farming, sensing and lifting, picking up and moving 4-by-8-foot hydroponic grow modules to the processing area. Here, a robotic arm analyses each plant to a sub-millimetre level, carefully picking them up and moving them to larger containers without damaging the plant itself or others near it.

 

Both robots are controlled by the “Brain,” cloud-based AI software which is overseen by a team of plant scientists. The Brain processes data collected by Angus, the robotic arm and other sensors throughout the farm to tell Angus when tasks need to be performed. Humans are also involved in seeding plants and preparing harvested crops for consumption.

Iron Ox co-founders Brandon Alexander and Jon Binney created the farm using their experience in robotics and in response to several problems in the US agricultural industry:

Labour scarcity

The number of workers available to US farmers has been rapidly declining in recent years. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of full-time field and crop workers dropped by at least 146,000 people, or by more than 20 percent.

  • The Iron Ox farm eliminates the need for a large workforce by using robots.

Long travel distances for produce

Leafy greens such as those grown by the Iron Ox farm can travel distances as far as 3,000 kilometres from farm to table, depending on their seasonal availability in different parts of the US.

  • Indoor farms like Iron Ox can be placed within or in close proximity to cities, reducing the distances produce has travel.

Unpredictable weather conditions

Outdoor farms are subject to the elements and unpredictable weather events.

  • The Iron Ox farm is much like a high-tech laboratory. Growing conditions are optimised to save energy and use 90% less water than traditional farms while producing 30 times the amount of crops per acre.

Inconsistency in produce availability and quality

The quality, availability and price of produce from outdoor farms fluctuates with the changing of the seasons.

  • By controlling growing conditions, the Iron Ox farm is able to consistently deliver the same high-quality produce, year-round.

In addition to this, Alexander and Binney are also dedicated to addressing global issues of food security. As the global population travels towards the 9 billion mark, humans will need to double food production. Farming solutions which bring food closer to cities and grow produce using fewer resources such as water and land are crucial to reaching this goal without further compromising the environment. Iron Ox is not yet the perfect solution. For example, the team were surprised by the energy costs of running the farm solely with LED lighting, leading them to decide that traditional greenhouses augmented by LED lighting would be a better solution. This means that they need more space than, for instance, a vertical farm and might need to position themselves outside of cities rather than within them.

 

This seems like a small compromise in comparison to the potential held by Iron Ox, a potential which is reflected in the $5 million of funding they have raised so far. Iron Ox plan to start selling produce from the farm this year and to expand to other urban centres in the near future.

Sources

Tech Crunch | Iron Ox opens its first fully autonomous farm

The Guardian | America’s first autonomous robot farm replaces humans with ‘incredibly intelligent’ machines

BBC | The world’s first fully-autonomous indoor farm