Robot Farmers May Revolutionize Indoor Greenhouses

Iron Ox, a California tech startup, created a robotic system for greenhouse farming to help grow food locally with low labor costs. The robotic farmers are programed to identify the health status of each plant while tending to their needs.


May 18 2019, Updated 2:50 p.m. ET

Farming techniques have come a long way over the last few centuries, and new agriculture technologies continue to push boundaries. Despite advances, the farming community is currently facing several hurdles. For example, as the world’s population grows, there is more pressure than ever on agricultural companies to find new ways to feed more people.  

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While there’s more demand for food, the farming industry is also experiencing a significant labor shortage as fewer people are joining the agricultural workforce. The farming industry is also grappling with environmental concerns because shipping food over long distances produces CO2 emissions. While greenhouses can help grow food locally in small space, traditional greenhouse farming can be pricey.  

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To tackle these issues, a startup called Iron Ox created a robotic system of greenhouse farming. This method can grow a significant amount of food locally with low labor costs. Brandon Alexander, one of Iron Ox’s founders, explained to Wired, “The problem up until today is that greenhouse production costs around twice as much to grow a head of lettuce as the outdoor farm.”According to Iron Ox, these robots can seed, water, and tend to each individual plant with more accuracy than human farmers.  

While human labor would typically be needed to transplant the plants to new trays as they grow, Iron Ox’s robots use stereo cameras to select and move produce. The camera allows a 3-D image to capture the size and shape of each plant and interpret whether it’s growing well. Unlike human farmers who might miss small details, this automated greenhouse approach works off of learning algorithms that efficiently detect and stop problems like plant disease before it spreads.  

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Apart from the hi tech farm hands, this machine system incorporates the positive sides of greenhouse farming which inherently requires less space. Instead of spreading out over acres of land, the plants are grown in trays dotted with holes.  

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In addition to using space more efficiently, Iron Ox also uses fewer resources. Their hydroponic system requires 90 percent less water than an outdoor farm. There’s also the added bonus of not having to worry about fluctuating seasons, so the company is able to grow thirty times more produce per acre than a traditional farm.  

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The founders behind this new technology, Brandon Alexander and Jon Binney, were inspired to create this solution because of their personal and professional backgrounds. Brandon grew up on a farm and saw first hand how the traditional farming model was wrought with inefficiencies. Meanwhile, John wanted to apply his background in robotic technology to a useful solution. As a result of their shared vision to improve farming technology, Iron Ox was born in 2016 and has been developing a robotic farming system ever since. 

Today the team focuses on growing GMO-free plants in the California area. They also skip toxic pesticides and opt for natural pest control instead. While they’re currently selling their produce on the west coast, Iron Ox is looking to take its scalable model to other areas around the world and make robotic farming the norm.  

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