Friday September 20, 2019
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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,

farmer robot
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.

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.

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

Technology, a Great Boon for Filmmaking

The process of shooting at locations, moving out of studios, began long back but the process was slow

Technology, Filmmaking, Period
This aspect, where filmmakers want to come out of the four walls of the studios, is location or outdoor shooting. Pixabay

It is not only the technology that has proved a great boon for filmmaking but there is another aspect that has changed over the period. This aspect, broadly speaking, is the available options to shoot where you wish to, not being confined to the four walls of a studio floor.

This aspect, where filmmakers want to come out of the four walls of the studios, is location or outdoor shooting. The process of shooting at locations, moving out of studios, began long back but the process was slow. Technology gave it a major push.

As a rule, almost all black and white era films were shot in studios. If a few directors moved out of the studios at all, it was on some scenic locations of Mumbai. Not only did this moving out take great effort, but also meant the spread of a big crew besides cast members. In that, a shoot which would have taken a couple of days or so, would cost five to seven days when out on streets.

Earlier, whatever the subject of the film, a filmmaker tried to justify it within the parameters of a studio. Studios in those days were huge and had infinite height. There were just bare walls and wooden planks tied with ropes overhead.

Technology, Filmmaking, PeriodTechnology, Filmmaking, Period
It is not only the technology that has proved a great boon for filmmaking but there is another aspect that has changed over the period. Pixabay

It was left for the film’s director, with the help of his art director, to create the world he envisaged for his film’s story within these walls. This breed of art directors was a breed of miracle workers. There are not many people who could point out which sequence of a film was shot in a studio, made possible by the art director. Replicating a location, real or imaginary, was their forte!

Take for example the film “Tere Ghar Ke Saamne”, where the popular song, “Tu jahaan yeh bata iss nashili raat mein”, meant to be at a hill station, was shot in a studio. It was the art director’s triumph. The other song, “Dil ka bhanwar karre pukar”, was shot on the narrow stairs of the Qutub Minar (for the sake of comparison). In the era of heavy cameras and tough lighting, that was the triumph of the trio of the director and the cinematographer aided by the art director; for the camera used to be very heavy in those days and, usually, meant to be static.

In Shakti Samanta’s “Amar Prem”, the song “Chingari koi bhadke”, supposedly shot on Hooghly River with the Howrah Bridge in the background, was actually shot at a studio in Mumbai’s Andheri.

There would be thousands of such examples. However, in the days of black and white movies it was easy as a lot of things were camouflaged for the lack of colour.

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The magic makers — the art directors — did not let a filmmaker down in colour films, either, although with colour films, their job became more challenging.

During the studio era, film studios mushroomed all over Mumbai, starting from Jyoti Studios at Nana Chowk to Famous Studios at Mahalaxmi and the Rajkamal at Parel. Dadar and Chembur became studio hubs as many stars lived in the areas nearby like Matunga. Dadar had three studios virtually next to each other — Ranjit, Shri Sound and Rooptara. Chembur boasted of Basant, Asha and RK Studios. As the film production offices started moving northwards, Mehboob Khan started his studio in Bandra. The ones like Mohan, Natraj, Filmalaya, Swati in Andheri, Kamalistan at Chandivali, and Filmistan at Goregaon strived.

The funny thing is people in those days did not mind back projection. If you saw a hero driving a car and saw the scenery moving along, it did not mean the sequence was shot on the roads. It was still a studio and the road and scenery were projected in the background!

Then, the Maharashtra Government set up the multi-facility Film City Studios. Spread over 520 acres, the property has 16 AC and non-AC studios besides 42 outdoor locations. And, what happened was what the wise men always said: Jahan Raja Vyapari, wahan Praja bhikhari. The private studios started running out of business one by one. One after the other, they started giving in to the real developers to cash in and get out.

Technology, Filmmaking, Period
This aspect, broadly speaking, is the available options to shoot where you wish to, not being confined to the four walls of a studio floor. Pixabay

This closing of studios gave a rise to private bungalows as shooting venues. Some of the best bungalows in Juhu, Versova and Bandra were made available for film shooting. Old time investments brought in new age daily rentals. It was a win win situation for the bungalow owners.

Even these bungalows did not suit all demands of a film script, and this was also the time when the TV Industry started taking wings. This paved the way for smaller, private studios where ready-to-shoot sets were made available, which also met the needs of films when required.

Even during the old studio days, some films needed to be shot outdoors. These were the ones with big vistas — films like “Mother India”, “JIs Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai”, “Gunga Jumna” and such. You can’t imagine a bullock-cart baraat song like “Gaadi wale gaadi dhire haak re” in “Mother India” or “Aa ab laut chale” in “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai” shot in a studio. They were visual delights.

Moving from the studios to streets of Indian cities gradually became a norm. But in the 1960s, some filmmakers planned films across the seven seas. And, these foreign lands were not to be created in studios.

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There was Shakti Samanta’s “An Evening In Paris”, Pramod Chakravorty’s “Love In Tokyo”, Pachhi’s “Around The World” as well as “International Crook” and so on. But these were few and far in-between. That was till, shooting abroad became a norm. The scripts were convoluted to justify foreign shootings and some of the biggest producers like Yash Raj Films, Sajid Nadiadwala and Karan Johar proceeded abroad to shoot their films, which could have easily been shot in India. This phase left many in the film industry working on the peripheries — like equipment suppliers, junior artistes and technicians — jobless. For, the crew going abroad was limited to a few people and the rest was outsourced there.

Initially, producer Yash Chopra and later Raj Kapoor chose foreign locations only to shoot songs, while rest of the content was shot locally in India. Others followed this practice.

Among the things that encouraged outdoor shootings, which the makers liked to call ‘actual locations’, was the easier movement of film cameras (much lighter now) as they became easier to carry around. One may remember the Ram Gopal Varma film, “Shiva”, which was fastpaced and full of action shot on actual locations. That was made possible because of a camera called Steadicam. The operator tied the camera around his waist and ran and chased the action. The thing weighed about 40 kilos, and running with it behind the stars in action was no an easy task. The first Steadicam operator in India, who shot “Shiva” was Deep Pal, who earned plaudits for his work.

Now, not only are the cameras lighter but are better equipped in that, you can watch on an attached or remote screen monitor what you are shooting. You don’t need to wait till the negative film you shot on is processed. While, Mumbai was the most popular location to shoot, the makers started venturing out to small towns in the interiors, to places like Uttar Pradesh, where the government offered incentives. Lately, the favourite place to shoot medium range love stories and comedies seems to be Delhi.

Earlier, it was said that the actual film worth taking to the public was made on an editing table. But, now, that ultimate destination has changed. In most cases, it is the VFX studio where the film as one sees it on screen takes shape. Computers do the needful. Sans VFX, you can’t imagine a film like “Fan”, the “Tiger” franchise, “Zero”, “2.0”, “Shivaay”, “Padmavat”, “Race 3”, “Dhoom”, “Total Dhamaal”… the list is endless. While “Total Dhamaal” could have easily been made without special effects, the makers decided to shoot it on Chroma, and only added up a massive price tag by going for VFX. While just about every film goes through VFX, these one required extensive special effects.

Besides films, even some of the stars need these special effects. The stars in their 50s use special effects in just about every frame to spruce up their look by getting rid of wrinkles and dark circles!

@The Box Office
Small is big, as is seen with small or medium-budget films doing well and with films with big stars getting scarcer. The good thing about these small films is that they are content driven and don’t count on a star’s popularity to draw the initial crowds. Also, due to this, admission rates are not jacked up as is done with big-star films to recover huge investments.

* The latest to score with excellent response is “Chhichhore”. The film opened low on Friday but, as the word of mouth spread, the collections took a massive leap and also managed to maintain the momentum after the opening weekend. Earning Rs 7 crore on the opening day and Rs 16 crore on Sunday, the film has closed its first week with an impressive Rs 66-crore haul.

* “Saaho”, expected to establish the “Baahubali” star Prabhas in the Hindi cinema, has not come up to expectations. The film failed to find favour with the audience and the collections (as issued by its makers) don’t quite justify the huge cost. The film has collected about Rs 23 crore taking its two-week total to Rs 136 crore.

* “Mission Mangal” earned about Rs 5.5 crore in its fourth week, taking its total to Rs 194 crore. The film may just about manage to reach the Rs 200-crore mark.

* “Batla House” comes to the end of its run having added just about Rs 1.4 crore in its fourth week for a lifetime total of Rs 89.4 crore. (IANS)