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Farm without a farmer

(Eric Risberg/AP)


Farm without a farmer

Startup hopes restaurants and grocers are ready for robotically grown greens

Indoor urban farming is, you could say, a growing trend. Indoor farm startups want to provide pesticide-free, locally grown vegetables directly to urban stores and restaurants that otherwise would buy produce that may have been shipped thousands of miles. And one California startup is taking indoor farming a step further: The company is offering a completely autonomous farm with no human workers.

In October, Iron Ox opened its first operational indoor robotic farm in an 8,000-square-foot hydroponic facility in San Carlos, Calif. The company hopes to grow about 26,000 heads of leafy greens each year without soil, a production rate typical of an outdoor farm five times bigger, according to MIT Technology Review.

“We designed the entire process, from the beginning, around robotics,” Iron Ox co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander told Fast Company. “It required us pretty much going back to the drawing board to see what we could do if robots were in the loop.”

At the farm, robotic arms plant the crops, add nutrients, transplant the plants to larger containers as they grow—maximizing health and yield—and according to Alexander will eventually harvest and package the greens for the market. Another mobile robot autonomously navigates the room carrying the 800-pound trays containing the crops. An artificial intelligence system nicknamed “The Brain” controls the entire operation, which currently includes some minimal human involvement still necessary until the farm is fully automated.

Alexander plans to sell initially to restaurants. “The next step,” he told Fast Company, “is to be working with chefs and say, ‘Hey, we’re your neighborhood robotic farm,’ and we want to supply probably the freshest produce they’ll ever have access to.”

Iron Ox hopes soon to begin working with grocery stores as well as restaurants, and next year plans to expand to other locations throughout the country.

One agricultural analyst suggested to Technology Review that, while the large investment needed for robotic farming might leave smaller family-owned farms behind, automation is needed across the industry to solve long-standing labor shortages.

BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Virtual relief

Virtual reality (VR) may be emerging as a viable alternative to traditional drug-based pain therapies. VRHealth, an Israeli company based in Boston, and VR headset manufacturer Oculus announced a partnership in September to provide a range of pain management applications, according to MobiHealthNews.

The two companies plan to offer therapies designed for mothers undergoing labor pain during childbirth, cancer patients experiencing pain associated with chemotherapy, as well as general anxiety management both before and after surgeries. Using virtual reality headsets, patients might experience environments such as a Hawaiian beach or a cool, icy video game called SnowWorld.

Clinical researchers experimenting with the technology are learning that VR not only distracts patients from their acute pain, it may be able to block the brain’s pain receptors like a prescription opioid, but without the addiction dangers.

“If you were to do a functional MRI of individuals who have pain, their brain will light up like a Christmas tree,” said Dr. David Rhew, the general manager of enterprise healthcare at Samsung Electronics America, at a recent virtual medicine symposium. “But when you have virtual reality in these treatments, and even after you’ve taken the headset off—which is the remarkable part, it’s not just being distracted in the moment, but it’s this persistence of the pain relief—we can still see a quieting down, and that’s seen visually on the functional MRIs.”

Therapeutic researchers hope to integrate VR along with other tools into broader programs of holistic treatment. —M.C.


  • Slosh1922
    Posted: Tue, 11/06/2018 06:29 am

    Some interesting follow-up questions: The article doesn't mention how the water needs for the hydroponic approach compare to standard farming. That's not only important for California, but more broadly. It also doesn't indicate how the energy savings in transportation compare to the energy use of manufacturing and running the robots.