Fresh, pesticide-free produce such as romaine lettuce, bok choy and cilantro grown in a large warehouse with practically no human interference is a reality in San Carlos, California.
At the headquarters of the world’s first fully autonomous farm Iron Ox, the entire process is designed around robotics. Co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander wanted to grow greens locally with the maximum amount of automation to make the local produce as affordable as possible.
Alexander says Iron Ox’s produce will be sold to places that don’t normally have access to fresh produce. “There’s a lot of places in rural America where there’s maybe only a Dollar General – that doesn’t do fresh produce today.”
After launching in 2015, Iron Ox have navigated the constraints of modern robotics who previously worked at Google’s research lab X and robotics incubator Willow Garage. “There’s a huge difference between your equipment working one time for a video and it working every day,” he says. “Most people outside of robotics underestimate just how big that gap is.”
The operation is saving costs and energy by growing with natural light. Its hydroponic growing system uses 90% less water than traditional farming and the robotic system saves labour costs. Operations are improved by using AI with a cloud-based monitoring system, that directs the robots. The start-up can grow 26,000 heads of lettuce, greens and herbs per year in the current 8,000-square-foot space. Iron Ox claims it can grow 30 times more produce per acre than a traditional farm.
Alexander says Iron Ox is the first farm designed to be completely autonomous. Plant scientists are working with engineers to build algorithms for the robot to identify plant diseases. But ultimately the farm can run on its own with only roboticists and plant scientists overseeing the system.
The upfront cost of Iron Ox’s technology is designed to be as cheap as possible and according to Alexander produce sales will be able to cover the initial investment in less than a year. The co-founder says the next step is working with chefs to supply local restaurants, delivering its high quality produce at a low price point to food deserts – enabled by AI and robotics. The ultimate vision? Just-in-time farming close to cities, with less waste and full traceability for affordable fresh produce.