Iron Ox opens its first fully autonomous farm

For the last two and a half years, Iron Ox has been working on perfecting its agricultural robots to tend its indoor farms. After first testing its systems on a small scale, the company is opening its first fully autonomous production farm, with plans to start selling its produce soon. The farm is currently growing […]

For the last two and a half years, Iron Ox has been working on perfecting its agricultural robots to tend its indoor farms. After first testing its systems on a small scale, the company is opening its first fully autonomous production farm, with plans to start selling its produce soon.

The farm is currently growing a number of leafy greens, including romaine, butterhead and kale, in addition to basil, cilantro and chives.  The robots that are tending these plants are Angus, a 1000-pound machine that can lift and move the large hydroponic boxes that the produce is growing in, and Iron Ox’s robotic arm for harvesting the produce.

As Iron Ox co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander told me, the current setup can produce about 26,000 plants per year and is equivalent to a one-acre outdoor farm — though this one is obviously indoors and far more densely packed.

Alexander noted that he and his co-founder Jon Binney decided to get into indoor farming after working at a number of other robotics companies — for Alexander, that includes a stint at Google X — where the focus was often more on building cool technologies and not on how those robots could be used. “We’d seen lots of novelty robotics stuff and wanted to avoid that,” he told me. And while the founding team considered getting into warehouse logistics or drones, they eventually settled on farming because, as Alexander tells it, they didn’t just want to build a good business but also one that would create social good.

Today, the vast majority of the kinds of leafy greens (the kind of produce that Iron Ox focuses on) in the U.S. is grown in California and Arizona — especially during the winter months when it’s colder in the rest of the country. That means a romaine lettuce that’s sold on the East Coast in January has often traveled more than 2,000 miles to get there. “That’s why we switched to indoors,” Alexander said. “We can decentralize the farm.”

It also helps that an indoor hydroponic farm can achieve 30 times the yield of an outdoor farm over the course of a year, yet uses far less space.

To get to this point where Iron Ox can operate an autonomous farm, though, took plenty of work and engineering chops. The hardest challenge, Alexander told me, was to get the robotic arm to look at the plants through its stereo cameras and then plan the pickup operation to harvest the produce, which isn’t always uniform. And to run this operation autonomously, it obviously has to do so reliably.

Angus, the larger robot that picks up the 800-pound pallets the produce is grown in and brings them to the robotic arm, also took some time to get right. You don’t want to move those pallets to quickly, after all, or you’ll have plenty of water to mop up.

All of that, including the system that monitors the plants, their growth, the sensors that watch over them and the hydroponics system, is then controlled from a cloud-based service that tells the robots when it’s time to harvest and what operations to perform. The robots themselves, though, then perform those tasks autonomously.

One thing that came as something of a surprise to the team, though, was that running an indoor farm solely with LED lighting still results in electricity bills that are simply too expensive to make the operation profitable. So going forward, Iron Ox is actually betting on more traditional greenhouses that are augmented by high-efficiency LED lighting.

That means the team can’t build these autonomous farms right in the city, though, because you can’t exactly stack a number of greenhouses on top of each other. But as Alexander noted, even if you have to be 20 miles outside of the city, that’s still far better than shipping produce to a supermarket that is thousands of miles away.

As Alexander stressed, the team spent a lot of time talking to both existing farmers and chefs to figure out what they needed. Farmers, it turned out, were mostly complaining about their inability to find labor. And that’s no surprise. The labor shortage in the agricultural industry is starting to become a major issue for farmers, especially in states like California. As for the chefs, what they were mostly looking for was quality, of course, but also predictability and consistent quality.

The plan now is to start selling the produce from the first farm and the scale to more and larger locations over time. Iron Ox also now has the money to do so, given that it has raised over $5 million in total, including a $3 million round it announced earlier this year.

Enveritas’ technology lets small growers tap into the market for sustainable coffee

Demand for sustainable coffee is growing, a boon for socially conscious coffee lovers — but many small growers are missing out because they lack the ability to verify that their coffee beans are grown using fair labor and eco-friendly practices. In fact, verification is often accessible only to large coffee estates or cooperatives. Enveritas wants […]

Demand for sustainable coffee is growing, a boon for socially conscious coffee lovers — but many small growers are missing out because they lack the ability to verify that their coffee beans are grown using fair labor and eco-friendly practices. In fact, verification is often accessible only to large coffee estates or cooperatives. Enveritas wants to change that. The nonprofit, which recently completed Y Combinator’s accelerator program, uses geospatial analysis to make the process more efficient, enabling it to offer free verification to small farms.

Enveritas’ goal is to end poverty in the coffee sector by 2030. Before founding Enveritas in 2016, CEO David Browning and head of operations Carl Cervone worked at TechnoServe, a nonprofit that serves businesses in developing economies. Browning led TechnoServe’s global coffee practice, while Cervone advised coffee growers in Africa, Asia and Latin America about sustainability trends.

Browning tells TechCrunch that TechnoServe’s coffee team spent a lot of time working with small farmers, many of whom don’t have access to sustainability verification because their farms are too remote or small. The typical coffee grower served by Enveritas has less than two hectares of land, lives on less than $2 a day and relies on cash crops for their family’s income.

“The existing solutions work well for large estates and it can also be effective for farmers organized into cooperatives, but many of the world’s coffee farmers are smaller farmers and not organized into estates,” Browning explains. “For those farmers, the existing solutions can be more difficult to access.”

Part of the reason is because many verification solutions rely on field workers who visit farms and track sustainability standards using pen and paper, a time-consuming and costly process.

To develop a more efficient and scalable system, Enveritas uses geospatial and machine learning to identify coffee farms through satellite imagery and monitor for issues like deforestation. Though it still relies on local partners to visit farms and confirm that sustainability standards are being followed, its technology enables Enveritas to provide verification services for free.

Enveritas checks for 30 standards, which it divides into three categories: social, environmental and economic. “Social” includes no child labor and workers’ rights; “environmental” checks for problems like deforestation, pollution or banned pesticides; and “economic” covers fair wages, ethical business practices and transparent pricing, among other standards.

The organization currently operates in 10 countries, including Uganda, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, with plans to expand into more markets.

Sustainable coffee isn’t just in demand by caffeine lovers with a penchant for social justice. Many of the world’s biggest coffee companies, including Illy and Starbucks, have launched sustainability initiatives as part of their corporate responsibility measures. Offering coffee grown using fair labor or environmentally friendly practices also helps differentiate their products in a crowded marketplace. Research by the National Coffee Association, an American trade group, recently found that many millennials prefer sustainable coffee, with up to two-thirds of 19 to 24-year-olds surveyed said they pick their coffee based on whether it was grown using environmentally friendly practices and fair labor.

While coffee is currently its main focus, Browning says Enveritas’ system can be applied to other agricultural products that need more visibility in their supply chains. For example, it also can be used to verify the sustainability of cocoa, cotton and palm oil.

As a nonprofit, Enveritas faces different funding challenges from other tech startups. Browning says it is currently at the equivalent of being ready for a Series A. Much of its backing comes from coffee companies (Enveritas can’t disclose which ones) that hope to benefit from Enveritas’ solutions.

“One of the advantages of this system is that it reduces the cost for coffee companies relative to the traditional pen and paper system, but it’s also simultaneously free for farmers,” Browning says. “That’s one of the most compelling innovations, so it’s a win-win for both.”

Your vegetables are going to be picked by robots sooner than you think

In the very near future, robots are going to be picking the vegetables that appear on grocery store shelves across America. The automation revolution that’s arrived on the factory floor will make its way to the ag industry in the U.S. and its first stop will likely be the indoor farms that are now dotting […]

In the very near future, robots are going to be picking the vegetables that appear on grocery store shelves across America.

The automation revolution that’s arrived on the factory floor will make its way to the ag industry in the U.S. and its first stop will likely be the indoor farms that are now dotting the U.S.

Leading the charge in this robot revolution will be companies like Root AI, a young startup which has just raised $2.3 million to bring its first line of robotic harvesting and farm optimization technologies to market.

Root AI is focused on the 2.3 million square feet of indoor farms that currently exist in the world and is hoping to expand as the number of farms cultivating crops indoors increases. Some estimates from analysis firms like Agrilyst put the planned expansions in indoor farming at around 22 million square feet (much of that in the U.S.).

While that only amounts to roughly 505 acres of land — a fraction of the 900 million acres of farmland that’s currently cultivated in the U.S. — those indoor farms offer huge yield advantages over traditional farms with a much lower footprint in terms of resources used. The average yield per acre in indoor farms for vine crops like tomatoes, and leafy greens, is over ten times higher than outdoor farms.

Root AI’s executive team thinks their company can bring those yields even higher.

Founded by two rising stars of the robotics industry, the 36 year old Josh Lessing and 28 year old Ryan Knopf, Root is an extension of work the two men had done as early employees at Soft Robotics, the company pioneering new technologies for robotic handling.

Spun out of research conducted by Harvard professor George Whiteside, the team at Soft Robotics was primarily comprised of technologists who had spent years developing robots after having no formal training in robot development. Knopf, a lifetime roboticist who studied at the University of Pennsylvania was one of the sole employees with a traditional robotics background.

“We were the very first two people at Soft developing the core technology there,” says Lessing. “The technology is being used for heavily in the food industry. What you would buy a soft gripper for is… making a delicate food gripper very easy to deploy that would help you maintain food quality with a mechanical design that was extremely easy to manage. Like inflatable fingers that could grab things.”

Root AI co-founders Josh Lessing and Ryan Knopf

It was radically different from the ways in which other robotics companies were approaching the very tricky problem of replicating the dexterity of the human hand. “From the perspective of conventional robotics, we were doing everything wrong and we would never be able to do what a conventional robot was capable of. We ended up creating adaptive gripping with these new constructs,” Lessing said.

While Soft Robotics continues to do revolutionary work, both Knopf and Lessing saw an opportunity to apply their knowledge to an area where it was sorely needed — farming. “Ag is facing a lot of complicated challenges and at the same time we have a need for much much more food,” Lessing said. “And a lot of the big challenges in ag these days are out in the field, not in the packaging and processing facilities. So Ryan and I started building this new thesis around how we could make artificial intelligence helpful to growers.”

The first product from Root AI is a mobile robot that operates in indoor farming facilities. It picks tomatoes and is able to look at crops and assess their health, and conduct simple operations like pruning vines and observing and controlling ripening profiles so that the robot can cultivate crops (initially tomatoes) continuously and more effectively than people.

Root AI’s robots have multiple cameras (one on the arm of the robot itself, the “tool’s” view, and one sitting to the side of the robot with a fixed reference frame) to collect both color images and 3D depth information. The company has also developed a customized convolutional neural network to detect objects of interest and label them with bounding boxes. Beyond the location of the fruit, Root AI uses other, proprietary, vision processing techniques to measure properties of fruit (like ripeness, size, and quality grading).  All of this is done on the robot, without relying on remote access to a data-center. And it’s all done in real time.

Tools like these robots are increasingly helpful, as the founders of Root note, because there’s an increasing labor shortage for both indoor and outdoor farming in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the mounting pressures on the farm industry increasingly make robotically assisted indoor farming a more viable option for production. Continuing population growth and the reduction of arable land resulting from climate change mean that indoor farms, which can produce as much as twenty times as much fruit and vegetables per square foot while using up to 90% less water become extremely attractive.

Suppliers like Howling Farms, Mucci Farms, Del Fresco Produce and Naturefresh are already producing a number of fruits and vegetables for consumers, said Lessing. “They’ve really fine tuned agriculture production in ways that are meaningful to broader society. They are much more sustainable and they allow you to collocate farms with urban areas [and] they have a much more simplified logistics network.”

That ability to pare down complexity and cost in a logistics supply chain is a boon to retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods that are competing to provide fresher, longer lasting produce to consumers, Lessing said. Investors, apparently agreed. Root AI was able to enlist firms like First Round CapitalAccompliceSchematic Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures and Half Court Ventures to back its $2.3 million round.

“There are many many roles at the farm and we’re looking to supplement in all areas,” said Lessing. “Right now we’re doing a lot of technology experiments with a couple of different growers. assessment of ripeness and grippers ability to grab the tomatoes. next year we’re going to be doing the pilots.”

And as global warming intensifies pressures on food production, Lessing sees demand for his technologies growing.

“On a personal level I have concerns about how much food we’re going to have and where we can make it,” Lessing said. “Indoor farming is focused on making food anywhere. if you control your environment you have the ability to make food…. Satisfying people’s basic needs is one of the most impactful things i can do with my life.”