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article imageIron Ox shows how AI and robots can increase farm production

By Karen Graham     Oct 3, 2018 in Technology
San Carlos - Start-up Iron Ox has created a fully autonomous farm in San Carlos, California. The hydroponic indoor farm relies on two robots to plant, care for and harvest produce, and by doing so, they grow 30 times more produce than traditional farms.
San Carlos, California-based Iron Ox is a startup company founded in 2015 by Brandon Alexander and Jon Binney.
The two entrepreneurs decided to get into robotic farms after working at a number of other robotic companies. But as Alexander notes, in his stint at Google X, it was more about building cool technologies, rather than how robots could be used. As he told Tech Crunch, "We’d seen lots of novelty robotics stuff and wanted to avoid that."
The two would-be urban farmers also realized that farming is very hard work. The U.S. alone has more than two million farms with 925,000 people to perform tasks like planting, seeding, and inspection, contributing to total production expenses of $350 billion in 2017.
Water scarcity has been exacerbated in recent years by growing urbanisation and increasing demand fr...
Water scarcity has been exacerbated in recent years by growing urbanisation and increasing demand from agriculture and industry
Fethi Belaid, AFP/File
And while production costs seem high, they will increase. Then, there is the knowledge that agricultural productivity will need to increase by 60 percent in order to feed the world population by 2050. All this inspired the young company to tap into a database of agricultural and horticultural knowledge, along with robotics to design an indoor farm of the future.
Today, most of the leafy greens grown in the U.S. are produced in California and Colorado, particularly in the winter months when it's colder in the rest of the country. So fresh leafy greens are actually two or three days old by the time they reach the supermarket. “That’s why we switched to indoors,” Alexander said. “We can decentralize the farm.”
The robotics first approach
“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.”
The robotic arm is equipped with a camera and computer vision systems that can analyze plants at sub...
The robotic arm is equipped with a camera and computer vision systems that can analyze plants at sub-millimeter scale and execute tasks like planting and seeding.
Iron Ox
And in the company's first 1,000-square-foot farm, which is in full production as of this week, there is a 1,000-pound robot named Angus that can lift and move the large hydroponic boxes in which the produce is growing, and Iron Ox ’s robotic arm for all the fine manipulation tasks, like seeding and transplanting.
With this current setup, Alexander says they can produce about 26,000 plants per year and is equivalent to a one-acre outdoor farm - which is pretty cool when you realize this one is indoors and densely packed. With this system, the farm grows 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.”
CEO Brandon Alexander claimed that Iron Ox is able to do the equivalent of 30 acres of outdoor farming in just a single acre on its robotic farm. The company wants to build more small farms near urban centers so produce is fresher upon arrival. “Right now fresh produce really isn’t all that fresh. It’s traveling on average 2,000 miles from farm to grocery store, which means a lot of people are eating week-old lettuce or strawberries, ” Alexander explained.
Each plant is eyeballed daily to ensure it is not sick.
Each plant is eyeballed daily to ensure it is not sick.
Iron Ox
The nitty-gritty of the operation
First of all, different planting trays with different spacing of their holes, some farther apart than others are used. This is because some leafy greens need more space than others. This means baby plants start off in a more densely packed tray, then graduate to trays with more room as they grow. “This, combined with the fact that we don't have to worry about seasonality—we can always be seeding, always be harvesting," says Alexander.
This is where the robotic arm comes in. It is equipped with stereo cameras on its wrist and grabs the plants with a gripper custom-designed to fit the pods. The arm sits between two trays of different densities, eyeballing the plants and moving them from one tray and to another.
The arm's camera can actually eyeball each plant, building a 3D image. “Is it the size that we expect?" says Jon Binney, CTO of Iron Ox. "Is it the shape that we expect? If it's going to fall one way or the other, that could be a lighting problem. Brown spots on the edges of the leaves could be too much light and not enough air coming through.”
According to Iron Ox, they are developing machine learning algorithms that will automatically detect diseased plants and kick them out of the system before the sickness spreads. Underdeveloped plants would also get the boot. What you end up with is a system that does the repetitive tasks of greenhouse farming faster and more precisely than a human, and uses that data to make the process all the more efficient.
According to Wired.com, this kind of farming is going to be the future of humanity, and in some respects, it will be necessary for our survival. While the planet's population continues to expand, the Earth remains the same size it has always been. So we have to get smarter to meet the demands of a future population.
More about Iron Ox, Artificial intelligence, Robotics, farm crops, the cloud