With the support of computer vision that captures 3D images of each and every grow module and data science, we are understanding how our production systems are interacting with our crops and how we can improve those interactions.

Using AI, Robotics and Plant Science to Grow Better More Sustainable Produce
Using AI, Robotics and Plant Science to Grow Better More Sustainable Produce

Q&A with Patricia Romero, Head of Plant Science, | Iron Ox

Tell us about yourself and your role with Iron Ox.

I am head of Plant Science here at Iron Ox and in my role, I am lucky to be surrounded by not only plants but data!  I love data and at Iron Ox, we are collecting data at each and every stage of the plant’s life from seed to harvest to better understand the plants. Some examples of data we collect are environmental conditions, nutrient profile, growing days, and seed density. 

 

What are some issues with traditional farming that Iron Ox is solving?

Traditional farming is a leading contributor to climate change and unable to meet rising consumer demand. Agriculture is responsible for 70% of global water consumption, and around 92% of the total water footprint of humanity (including pollution). 

Agriculture needs a technological revolution that will make it more sustainable and efficient. Iron Ox is redesigning agriculture to confront its staggering environmental impacts, and adapting farming to meet our future needs by making it a precise science that lets plants reach their full potential. We are pioneering sustainable and precise growing techniques including AI, robotics and plant science, to reduce agriculture's impact on global climate. 

 

How does the Iron Ox system work?

Iron Ox has redesigned the entire farming process from seed to harvest. We are using robotics, custom hydroponics, AI, and plant science to give each and every plant exactly what the plant needs at the right time.

We do this by our proprietary, flexible modular architecture that uses automation that enables data capture at scale. Our greenhouses allow rapid experimentation at scale.

Iron Ox's indoor greenhouses use sunlight to provide consistently perfect growing conditions that enable us to grow delicious, fresh produce all year. Not only are our plants able to thrive in an environment that is protected from pests and changing weather conditions, but our process also allows us to reduce our impact on the environment significantly. We use fewer resources, have less waste, and grow more delicious produce.

 

How does the Iron Ox system and technology differ from others?

Through our technology, we are able to optimize growing techniques 10 times faster with greater accuracy. With our technology, we are able to efficiently deliver water and nutrients  to the plants, reducing irrigation waste and increasing nutrient efficiency, and at the same time, recapture and re-use the excess irrigation water (as well as other water inputs).  Our sun-based operations rely on vastly less electricity than vertical indoor farms. Also, our AI has led to at least three advances already (and will lead to more): 

  • Improved yield per plant (more food for less space/energy), 

  • Accurate yield predictions (to improve supply chain and forecasting)

  • Faster growing cycles (less time in germination and propagation).

However, the key differentiating feature of an Iron Ox farm is our grow module. They are  6’x6’ units that enable us to give each plant the attention it needs. We are a very cross-functional company, and thanks to the amazing  engineering, control and software teams, plant science has the possibility to develop specific nutrient profiles to multiple crop systems under natural sunlight. And when I say multiple crop systems, I'm talking about crops that are outside the category of leafy greens and herbs. 

 

How does Iron Ox’s technology help improve the way produce is grown?  Can you share an example.

Control and understanding of plants is a massive hyperdimensional problem involving many inputs such as genetics, nutrients, and environment. Discovering the right combination of inputs requires an unprecedented number of data collection, experiments, and analyses. Traditional farming approaches are incapable of this level of experimentation. 

With the support of computer vision that captures 3D images of each and every grow module  and data science, we are understanding how our production systems are interacting with our crops and how we can improve those interactions to grow outstanding, sustainable and accessible crops. 

Our automation and modular architecture enables fast experimentation at scale and our crop modeling initiative allows us to characterize every input and their interaction. We’re going to take the entire food system up to a new level. The data we capture will enable better, tastier, more nutritious produce that’s grown more sustainably.

By using sunlight as your main source of light you know that you are going to have seasonalities throughout the year but that does not mean that you need to compromise your quality and production. The development of a crop model for Basil in California has allowed us to use each of the inputs required for its production and adjust them accordingly to the crop needs. We are not done, there is more work that needs to be done to fully optimize our production but also to reduce our environmental impact

 

How efficient are Iron Ox facilities and how are you reducing food waste?

Through our modern technology, we can grow 15x more per acre and are estimated to use 90% less water than field farms. Our system uses 75% less electricity than LED-based vertical farms. 

I mentioned earlier that I love data.. And the reason is because It allows us to understand the plants better. The team is super focused on characterizing each grow input and their interaction with our crops and our production systems. This is important because our goal is to optimize our production but also make sure that we are only providing what the plant needs, no more, no less… Thus eliminating waste like excess water, nutrients etc. 

Our grow modules (and there will be 1,000s once our facility in Lockhart Texas is finished) can be quickly configured to a different crop type for ‘Just in Time’ farming. Meaning we grow what is needed in the market.

This new approach, which scales easily and delivers locally, provides meaningfully better food, while dramatically reducing or eliminating the systemic environmental impacts of traditional large-scale agriculture. This not only allows us to optimize for the market demand, but also have lower environmental impacts and eliminate food waste. We only grow what’s needed, and then we deliver it locally, within about a day of harvest. It sounds simple, but it’s impossible for traditional farm systems to do this. Our approach eliminates long transit times and refrigeration, our data systems allow us to predict demand, and our modular growing bays make it easy for us to quickly adjust the crops we grow. It’s a complete system, built to specifically eliminate systemic waste while delivering a variety of fresh, delicious produce. 

 

How is Iron Ox different from traditional and controlled environment farms?

Iron Ox’s modular greenhouses can grow different crops simultaneously as each grow module can have its own recipe allowing us- if we want - to do 100s different types of recipes or grow 100s different crops in the greenhouse. We can change crops at a moment’s notice, precisely meeting the needs of the nearby communities. Our sun-based operations rely on vastly less electricity than vertical indoor farms, and our extensive robotic elements efficiently handle tedious and strenuous work. 

Ours is a precise, flexible, and scalable approach to agriculture.  That is simply not possible using large amounts of fixed infrastructure, networks of pipes everywhere, tracks or conveyors throughout the facility to move plants around etc.

We can achieve this approach by moving our grow modules individually, by bringing them to the water and the nutrients rather than the reverse.  But these modules are heavy (over a thousand pounds) and we need an approach that is efficient and can scale.

Grover is a custom designed mover robot by Iron Ox  and optimized for this application.  It is built with the same types of sensors and algorithms used in self-driving cars.  It has specialized motors and a lift system that allows him to pick up and move these grow modules over and over and over.

Working with the rest of our systems, Grover lets us track the location and status of each of our grow modules.  Grover can take plants for 3D scanning in our photobooth; and then based on those results take the module for more water, more nutrients, or to harvest.  The flow can all be determined autonomously and in real time.

It’s this flexibility of Grover and our systems that enables individualized control and response to each plant, and what enables us to switch crops/optimize yields on a constant basis. It enables doing all of this at the scale of this facility. Grover is the workhorse of the Iron Ox farm.

 

How is this kind of farming more sustainable than traditional farming?

Iron Ox was started to solve one of the world’s biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions: how and where we grow fresh produce. Iron Ox’s long-term core strategy is making sustainable food accessible for everyone. Our targets for Iron Ox greenhouses include net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and targeting 90% water efficiency by delivering what the plants need, and reclaiming and reusing anything they don't use. Not only are our plants able to thrive in an environment that is protected from pests and changing weather conditions, our process also allows us to reduce our impact on the environment significantly. Using plant science, robotics, and other advanced technologies, we grow fresh produce with more precision, exceptional freshness, and less waste. 

 

 

 

About Patricia Romero – Head of Plant Science, Iron Ox
Paty is a Plant Scientist with 15 years of experience in different agricultural systems in the U.S. and Mexico. She obtained a PhD in Plant Pathology from Purdue University which allows her to tackle a wide variety of challenges in emerging crop systems. Her passion is driven by the opportunity to be part of the solution that would allow future generations to have access to healthy, quality produce.

 
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

Comments (1)

Very interesting your sustainable farming vision. Right now, how many types of crops are you offering to the market? Congratulations!

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