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The Future Farmer is Here and He is A Robot

The heavy lifting on Iron Ox’s indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another,

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Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander gives a tour at his robotic indoor farm in San Carlos, California. VOA

Brandon Alexander would like to introduce you to Angus, the farmer of the future. He’s heavyset, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pounds, not to mention a bit slow. But he’s strong enough to hoist 800-pound pallets of maturing vegetables and can move them from place to place on his own.

Sure, Angus is a robot. But don’t hold that against him, even if he looks more like a large tanning bed than C-3PO.

To Alexander, Angus and other robots are key to a new wave of local agriculture that aims to raise lettuce, basil and other produce in metropolitan areas while conserving water and sidestepping the high costs of human labor. It’s a big challenge, and some earlier efforts have flopped. Even Google’s “moonshot” laboratory, known as X, couldn’t figure out how to make the economics work.

After raising $6 million and tinkering with autonomous robots for two years, Alexander’s startup Iron Ox says it’s ready to start delivering crops of its robotically grown vegetables to people’s salad bowls. “And they are going to be the best salads you ever tasted,” says the 33-year-old Alexander, a one-time Oklahoma farmboy turned Google engineer turned startup CEO.

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The temperatures of some two dozen plant varietals are monitored at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

Iron Ox planted its first robot farm in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in San Carlos, California, a suburb located 25 miles south of San Francisco. Although no deals have been struck yet, Alexander says Iron Ox has been talking to San Francisco Bay area restaurants interested in buying its leafy vegetables and expects to begin selling to supermarkets next year.

The San Carlos warehouse is only a proving ground for Iron Ox’s long-term goals. It plans to set up robot farms in greenhouses that will rely mostly on natural sunlight instead of high-powered indoor lighting that sucks up expensive electricity. Initially, though, the company will sell its produce at a loss in order to remain competitive.

During the next few years, Iron Ox wants to open robot farms near metropolitan areas across the U.S. to serve up fresher produce to restaurants and supermarkets. Most of the vegetables and fruit consumed in the U.S. is grown in California, Arizona, Mexico and other nations. That means many people in U.S. cities are eating lettuce that’s nearly a week old by the time it’s delivered.

There are bigger stakes as well. The world’s population is expected to swell to 10 billion by 2050 from about 7.5 billion now, making it important to find ways to feed more people without further environmental impact, according to a report from the World Resources Institute.

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A robotic arm lifts plants being grown at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

Iron Ox, Alexander reasons, can be part of the solution if its system can make the leap from its small, laboratory-like setting to much larger greenhouses.

The startup relies on a hydroponic system that conserves water and automation in place of humans who seem increasingly less interested in U.S. farming jobs that pay an average of $13.32 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly half of U.S. farmworkers planting and picking crops aren’t in the U.S. legally, based on a survey by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The heavy lifting on Iron Ox’s indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another, as-yet unnamed robot, which transfers plants from smaller growing pods to larger ones, using a mechanical arm whose joints are lubricated with “food-safe” grease.

It’s a tedious process to gently pick up each of the roughly 250 plants on each pallet and transfer them to their bigger pods, but the robot doesn’t seem to mind the work. Iron Ox still relies on people to clip its vegetables when they are ready for harvest, but Alexander says it is working on another robot that will eventually handle that job too.

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Alexander formerly worked on robotics at Google X, but worked on drones, not indoor farms. While there, he met Jon Binney, Iron Ox’s co-founder and chief technology offer. The two men became friends and began to brainstorm about ways they might be able to use their engineering skills for the greater good.

“If we can feed people using robots, what could be more impactful than that?” Alexander says. (VOA)

Next Story

Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal.

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New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (2nd-L) speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

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Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials. Pixabay

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

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Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Pixabay

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

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Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.” (VOA)