Farming involves a lot of hard work and that is the primary reason the over 2 million farms in the United States employ nearly 925,000 individuals to perform tasks like inspection, planting and seeding. The salary and wages of the workers amounted to $350 billion in the year 2017 alone. However, without increased agricultural productivity – around 60 percent – the world population might not hit the projected number by year 2050. The crisis inspired Iron Ox cofounders to start a database consisting of robotics and horticultural knowledge that might facilitate designing of future indoor farms.
Ion Ox is not the only company working to automate agriculture. New Jersey’s AeroFarms relies on intelligent machines. Plenty and Bower startups are doing that too. However, Iron Ox claims that it is the first company to automate agricultural practises fully.
Brandon Alexander, who is the CEO and a cofounder of Iron Ox, was a worker at the Willow Garage robotics lab. Later, he worked for the Alphabet’s Secret X Division – the research and development lab behind the Google Glass self-driving vehicle by-product, Waymo and Loon. He worked together with the cofounder of Iron Ox Jon Binney to reduce production costs with a goal of helping the agricultural sector feed 10 billion individuals sustainably.
About the indoor farm
The farming involves progression of robotics, plant science in addition to machine learning. When developing the indoor farm, Iron Ox had one main goal – improving the quality and the flavours of leafy greens available in the market, including lettuce, romaine, butterhead and kales. The team believed that herbs like basil, cilantro and chives would also have a better taste. The other goal of this team was to increase the availability of the herbs and leafy greens. The cofounders said that they employed robotics-first approach in the design process. They also engineered everything on the farm including the robots and hydroponic grow systems.
For average indoor farms, some tasks including harvesting, seeding and plant inspection are known to happen almost on a daily basis. To reduce the labour expenses, farms can opt for robots because they handle the repetitive tasks and the labour intensive ones perfectly. And because Iron Ox has developed robots that can handle individual needs of every plant perfectly, such tasks will be easier.
Iron ox uses tow robotic systems – the robotic arm and the mobile transport. Therefore, they have managed to attain full production. The engineers designed the systems to function cohesively. Moreover, the mobile transport system employs a technology that is closer to that of the self-driving cars in some cities. They rely on sensors and computer vision. The purpose of Iron Ox’s robotic arm is to analyse the plants at sub millimetre scale.
To ensure cohesion across the various parts of their farm and to record the environmental changes, Iron Ox relies on cloud software, which works as the brain to monitor this useful data. The team has to monitor the conditions of their indoor farm to ascertain that all plants are healthy. Reliable data is all they need to ascertain that.
The world population is increasing and by the year 2050, it is likely to stand at 10 billion. That might not be important for now, but the people will need around twice the food the world consumes today. So, with many problems like labour scarcity and increased cost of energy, it might be hard to produce the food this population will require.
The autonomous farming the Iron Ox has developed might alleviate the issues and enable most companies to produce around 30 times, of what they produce today. The approach Iron Ox has designed is more sustainable because it leverages the sun, LED lighting and the hydroponic growing systems that require nearly 90 percent lesser water.
The Iron Ox team is made of experienced robot developers on a mission of redefining the agricultural industry. By automating farming processes and gathering large amounts of data around crop production, the team will improve farm production drastically and bring cleaner fresh products to the market. Founded in the year 2015, Iron Ox has raised $6 million to fund the project – $3 million from Eniac Ventures.
The Iron Ox robots
Iron Ox uses three artificial intelligence powered robots in every square-acre of greenhouse. Two robots, known as transporters, lift and ferry the trays featuring plants to the third robot – the robotic arm. The purpose of this robotic arm is to plant seeds, cycle the juvenile plants in large growing plants, image plants to check for diseases and finally harvest the crop.
Iron Ox also uses hydroponic system, known as deep-water culture, to water the plants in plastic cones. The plants seat in plastic cones, floating on a raft dipped in a water tray and their roots remain submerged in the nutrient-rich water. The trays are the foundation of Iron Ox’s indoor farms. They facilitate the movement of the plants to and from the robots arm. The robot arm collects data points from the water tray every second. The robot also monitors humidity, ambient light and the air temperature.
The Farming Process
The robotic arm takes the seed, which is the starting phase of every plant and injects it into the foam-like cube floating in a cone. The Iron Ox team chose the plastic cone because it effectively protects the base of the plant from the robotic arm’s grippers, and because it provides the robotic arms with a better place to grip when moving the plants.
The crops have to grow for over two weeks before the transporter moves them to the robotic arm. The robotic arm then picks them up and transports them into trays. After that, the Iron Ox teams outfit the trays with augmented reality tags. That process allows the robotic arms recognize all the trays they are working with and the best places to place the plants.
The transplanting processes must happen after every two weeks. The Iron Ox robotic arm also consists of a camera, which creates 3D model images to help the team analyse the crops for diseases and to ensure that all the crops are growing normally. Finally, the robotic arm has to uproot a plant from its plastic cone after it has grown, and place it in a container ready for the shipment.
Perfect fusion of AI in farm
We are still waiting to see the first Iron Ox’s full-functioning greenhouse. The company has a goal of making a network of robot-operated greenhouses near the key United States cities, complete with truck fleets to facilitate same-day delivery. The traditional outdoor farms are not applicable in the suburban areas but a square-acre greenhouse will easily fit in these areas, which are characterized by dense populations and inadequate cultivation space. Again, the automated farms do not require human labour. The robots will plant and harvest the crops when the time comes.