Silicon Valley-based startup Iron Ox is utilizing autonomous robotics to fundamentally change the nature of greenhouse-based agriculture. While the exterior of the Iron Ox greenhouse in San Carlos, California is far from remarkable, the cost-cutting integration of hydroponics, solar energy, robotics, and space-conscious farming is more than noteworthy.
By using autonomous robots to plant, seed, water, and even harvest their hydroponically grown crops, Iron Ox’s system provides uniformity and rapidity which conventional, human-centric farming methods can’t match. Iron Ox greenhouses’ daily harvesting and proximity to urban centers, grocery stores, and product suppliers diminishes the nutrient loss and often bland taste which results from produce being shipped hundreds or thousands of miles from farm to store.
Founders Brandon Alexander, a former Google X engineer and John Binney, who holds a PhD in robotics, check all the boxes when it comes to consumer demand for non-GMO, pesticide-free produce. Alexander, Iron Ox’s CEO, is uniquely qualified as the leader of this farming revolution. His work on Google’s Project Wing included exploring and implementing ways for autonomous robots to work in combination. With the proper technology in place, Alexander estimates that set-up of one of Iron Ox’s urban greenhouses takes only three to four months, on average.
The master plan is to expand Iron Ox greenhouses manned by autonomous robot-farmers to as many American cities as possible, providing a fresher, potentially cheaper source of produce that traditional farms located far from these cities would be hard-pressed to compete with. Consider that, according to Alexander, a single square-acre Iron Ox greenhouse can match the annual yield of 30 acres of traditional farmland. It also stands to reason that the products created in these robotic greenhouses are less vulnerable to insects and parasites, eliminating the need to use harmful chemicals used to protect outdoor-grown crops.
Like so many industries that have long been a staple of the American and world economies, the application of robotic technology in agriculture will likely mean a drastic shift away from dependence on human labor. The proliferation of companies like Iron Ox carries clear benefits, but it will almost certainly mean structural unemployment for those who depend on traditional means of agriculture as a livelihood. That said, it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when we see this shift toward autonomous greenhouse farming on a mass scale.