Mobile robots transport plant modules, like this basil, to nutrient-rich watering stations tailored to each unique crop. This technology allows different crops to grow in the same greenhouse. (Photo by John Anderson)
A few blocks from Smitty’s Market in Lockhart sits Texas’ first AI-assisted hydroponic greenhouse. iron buffalo, the confluence of Californian robot technology and sustainable agriculture, opened in the spring of 2021 and held its first major media opening round this April 21, just ahead of Earth Day. “We are in an advanced phase of climate crisis”, began the founder and CEO Brandon Alexanderdecrying the disproportionate contribution of industrial agriculture, which uses 70% of the world’s fresh water. Traditional farming practices combined with climate change are impacting “where your fresh fruits and vegetables come from,” Alexander said. “Places like [California’s] Central Valley, the salad bowl of the United States, is sinking because of overconsumption of water by industrial agriculture. Everything from how we plow our land, to the chemicals we add, to the 2,000 miles we travel from farm to grocery store [feels] broken.”
Iron Ox, Alexander’s attempt to fix this system, applies his robotics and AI background to Google to hydroponic farming practices (which use 90% less water than traditional farming), with the aim of increasing sustainability and efficiency. In practice, it looks like a greenhouse inhabited by a fleet of mobile robots named Grover, plus a hint of computer vision, or “big data for plants” as the Iron Ox team put it. Plants pass through seeding, germination and propagation rooms before reaching the main greenhouse grow room, where they reach their full potential before harvest. Each crop — right now Iron Ox is growing herbs and vegetables like basil and lettuce, but their lab in California is testing strawberries, tomatoes, and even kohlrabi — is placed in its own module, which can then be picked up by Grover the robot and moved to nutrient-rich watering holes at will. Computer vision, a type of AI that derives information from images, is used to scan each plant and gather information to specifically address its needs and increase yield. Plant Science Manager Paty Romero explains that this allows a greenhouse to grow different types of crops, all with different cocktails of nutrients – “leafy greens which require higher levels of nitrogen, fruit crops have potassium and phosphorus…we let’s play with these ratios.”
The flexibility of the modules is not only good for plant variety, but also makes robot-assisted agriculture cheaper and more easily scalable, the robotics manager explained. David Silverformerly of Waymo, which is the mobility arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. “The way past approaches would try to expand would be to come up with a fixed process for how they were going to do it and then build it into the environment. But that means it’s exactly the same conditions for every plant. , they can only grow one thing at a time, and they can’t adapt.” With Iron Ox’s method, “the initial amount is smaller and the ongoing costs are far from the same. Once you’ve invested in something like this, if you want to change the recipe, it’s not than software.”
Iron Ox’s commitment to sustainability means final product travel time to Texas grocery stores can’t exceed a day’s drive, hence Lockhart’s convenient location, which can cater to neighboring markets in Houston, Austin and Dallas while eliminating the greenhouse gases emitted by the 2,000 miles of travel that most products require. The robots themselves are also sustainable: “[They] use a fraction of the power that large systems in any greenhouse use,” says Silver. The robotics team, many of whom are recent Google employees, are currently redesigning the modules to streamline construction and use less stainless steel.” One of the things that we are committed to understanding, not just at the individual plant level, but for the entire operation, including construction, what all of this means in terms of resources” , says Silver.
The Lockhart site is Iron Ox’s second location after Gilroy, California. A third greenhouse is expected, also at Lockhart, to be at least twice as large as the first. Currently available in California Whole Foods Market locations, Iron Ox products are expected to appear in Austin stores this summer. And if all goes according to plan, this lettuce will be nutrient-optimized, higher-yielding, and better for the Central Texas environment.
See more photos from the opening of Iron Ox.