For an industry to stand the test of time, it must be two things. For one, it must appear to be essential. Let’s take a look at the things that have persisted since the earliest developed societies. They all have one thing in common — they revolve around core human needs such as food, water, and shelter or create a need people never knew existed.
The entertainment industry, while not providing any basic human necessity, has grown to a position of such importance that the vast majority of us cannot imagine a world without it. Hollywood’s screenwriters and directors were once upon a time the playwrights and poets of the Renaissance or Hellenic eras, and even flute-playing early humans as far as 40,000 years ago.
Industries with long-term success must also be adaptable. Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, famously said that change is the only true constant in life. And it is true — we might have guesses as to where the world will be two, 20, or even 200 years from now, but the only thing we know for certain is that it will be different from today.
This viability question is what the agriculture sector faces. The ability to farm has been a foundation of human development. But new advances in lab-grown food and dwindling land availability have raised the question of what role agriculture will have generations from now. At Iron Ox, a rising startup out of Silicon Valley, the answer to current and future farmers is simple: we take it indoors.
Moving traditional fields into air-conditioned warehouses is hardly new in 2022. There is already plenty of support for alternative techniques like vertical farming, reportedly valued at more than $4 billion worldwide. But Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander considers the company’s most significant advantage to be its attention to detail, which is made possible with the help of artificial intelligence-powered robots.
“One of the key things that our technology does: it’s always monitoring the plants, and it’s reacting,” says Alexander. “How is this plant doing? Can we tweak it? Maybe a little more nitrogen? Adjust the water acidity?”
Iron Ox’s robot, Grover, whose name is a combination of “growth” and “versatility,” comes fresh with a variety of talents that aren’t often seen in his human counterparts.
Grover’s Roomba-like frame can easily handle more than 1,000 pounds, vital for rotating any of the numerous crop modules around the facility at a moment’s notice.
The interchangeability of each module is crucial for moving each crop to different scanners and feeders, which are highly customized for maximum flavor and nutritional content.
“Designing and building Grover was a complex multi-year project, solving for many challenges in hardware, software, autonomy, and mobility,” says Sarah Osentoski, senior vice president of engineering at Iron Ox. “We assembled a world-class team to achieve this.”
The company’s growth reached new heights this past April with an expansion to Alexander’s home state of Texas. Sitting in Lockhart, a city roughly 40 minutes outside of Austin, the 535,000-square-foot facility employs a dozen Texans in technician and food scientist positions, with more to come as operations ramp up in the region.
While company heads haven’t wavered from the idea of becoming entirely autonomous one day, a more immediate priority is creating an increased presence for domestically-sourced produce as opposed to having it shipped from overseas, according to Alexander. “Less traveled distance, less chemicals, and a better, fresher product to boot.”