Startups across the country have begun reimagining the way food is produced. While some of these companies focus on growing farm-fresh food in unlikely urban environments, others are interested in automation. One Silicon Valley startup called Iron Ox has invented robotic farming systems that are now producing lettuce sold in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, the trio of lettuces grown is available in only a single store while Iron Ox and similar organizations verify that a market for robotically grown food exists.
Iron Ox began its operations last October under the mission of simplifying human-intensive agricultural processes. The company has developed robotic arms used for picking, as well as self-driving porters and hydroponic vats. Altogether, these three technologies have eliminated some of the human labor normally involved in growing produce. However, it is important to note that Iron Ox’s farm is not entirely automated, as humans still complete much of the work involved. For example, humans plant the seedlings and package the picked lettuce for sale. At the same time, robots oversee the entire growing period, which is traditionally one of the most labor-intensive.
The store now selling the robotically grown lettuces is Bianchini’s Market in San Carlos, where Iron Ox is headquartered. This small, family-owned grocery store sells locally and organically grown produce. The news of Iron Ox entering the market is promising for the future of agricultural robotics, especially since it has provoked conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this approach to growing food. One benefit, for example, is that an automated farm has a smaller physical footprint than a traditional farm and can thus be located close to consumers. The Iron Ox farm serving Bianchini’s, for example, is less than a mile from the store. This small distance translates to lower costs and a smaller carbon footprint, at least when it comes to transportation.
On the downside, scaling operations could be difficult. Currently, Iron Ox produces only three different types of greens. Furthermore, the price of these products is on the expensive side, although not as high as some people might initially think. In general, the prices align with those one might expect at a high-end grocery store like Whole Foods, but they cannot compete with those at cheaper outlets. Currently, robotic farming is a niche market, since human labor is still cheaper, but the cost might fall if the technology improves and people are willing to pay for the product. Another important point to consider is the potential environmental impact of operating the robotics. Do the resources used to fuel the robotics stamp out the environmental benefits of local production?
Iron Ox is not the only company working to develop robots for the agricultural industry. The New Yorker recently profiled Wish Farms in Florida and its efforts to develop a robot to pick strawberries as a cheaper solution than paying temporary workers, who have become increasingly scarce in recent years and thus more costly. The two men behind the company recently introduced Berry 5.1, a berry-picking robot that is not quite ready for deployment in the field, but which represents incredible progress toward that point. Berry 5.1 relies on GPS guidance for direction to each of the plants. Many farms, including Wish Farms, have been using GPS for a long time to help plant crops in straight lines, but it is only recently that entrepreneurs are unlocking the greater potential of this technology, which includes a variety of tools driven by artificial intelligence.
A number of other companies are pursuing similar goals. For example, Dogtooth in the United Kingdom and Octinion in Belgium, as well as the Spanish company Agrobot have all developed machines to help pick strawberries, and other companies have developed similar devices for harvesting grapes, oranges, apples, and more. In Silicon Valley, Blue River Technology has unveiled a robot that can thin lettuce plants. The technology has been getting significant attention from specialty crop farmers throughout California. Notably, John Deere bought Blue River Technology in 2017, so major players in the industry are paying close attention to developments in agricultural robotics.
Academic researchers are also working to unlock the power of robotics for agriculture. At the University of California, Davis, the Smart Farm Initiative was established with the purpose of connecting farmers to technologies that could launch them into the future, including robotics, but also drones, artificial intelligence, big data, and more. Students at the university recently developed a robot that could be used by large-scale farms to weed crops. Meanwhile, at the University of Florida, academics have begun questioning how robots could be used to facilitate a strawberry-breeding program by training them to recognize the specific traits in plants that the breeders want to include in future generations.