A Longhorn Is Reinventing Farming—With Robots

An aerial view of the Iron Ox facility in Lockhart, Texas.

Brandon Alexander had been trying to make burritos fly—and he was getting tired. The year was 2015, and the 30-year-old roboticist was embedded with a drone team at Google that was pioneering the future of autonomous flight. It was, in many ways, a dream job for someone like Alexander, BA ’07, Life Member. He had spent most of his career focused on solving the wickedly hard problem of teaching robots how to navigate the real world, a passion he had cultivated as an undergraduate at UT Austin. But when he learned that all of his work was going toward a more efficient way to deliver fast food, he knew it was time for a change. How could he make a different kind of impact? 

“I started with the question of, where can I have the most positive impact? When you frame it that way, it really puts a lot of things into perspective,” Alexander says. “I evaluated many industries, and the reality is that few industries can even come close to food production in terms of impact. It’s just so fundamental.” So, in 2015, Alexander left his job at Google and set out on a 1,500-mile cross-country road trip that would change the course of his life—and potentially the entire agricultural industry. 

During that fateful road trip, Alexander met with dozens of farmers and got a firsthand look at the state of modern industrial agriculture—from the way the land was plowed and seeded, to the types of fertilizers used, to the way the crops were harvested. When he returned home from his journey, his path forward was clear—and ambitious: He set out to tackle several of the industry’s biggest challenges at once, by building an indoor farm where robot stewards diligently attended to crops around the clock. They would plant the seeds, water the plants, and harvest the produce, all with minimal human intervention. The robots would cultivate their crops to maximize yield and flavor while minimizing waste, eliminating pesticides, and diminishing farming’s carbon footprint. It sounds way too good to be true, but five years later, Alexander’s vision has come to life. It’s called Iron Ox. 

Building robots and artificial intelligence to fundamentally change an industry as old as agriculture isn’t a job for the faint of heart. But if anyone is suited to take these challenges on, it’s Alexander. In addition to his expertise in robotics, Alexander spent his childhood summers—reluctantly—working on his grandfather’s ranch in Texas. Those experiences exposed him at a young age to the many problems that farmers face, from labor shortages to environmental degradation—not to mention the pure drudgery of working the land. But until he took that road trip and saw America’s agriculture industry at work today, he had no idea how much worse things had become since his childhood days on the family farm. 

“Every [issue] we found was systemic, from the way the land is plowed to how it’s seeded, fertilized, and harvested,” Alexander says. He noted that most American produce comes from drought-stricken California, meaning that the produce in a grocery store has traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to get there. The entire process is unsustainable and will only become more so as farmers contend with the fallout from climate change and a rapidly growing global population. “If you’re going after a problem where every step of the way has an issue, then you need to tackle it systematically and rethink the whole process from seed to the consumer’s plate,” he says. “Our goal is simple: We want all food to have a positive impact, which means more or less undoing everything that industrial agriculture has done for the past 100 years.” 

In 2018, Alexander and his team built their first robot-run indoor greenhouse in California’s Bay Area. Later this year they will open a larger second facility in Lockhart, Texas. At first glance, each facility looks like a typical greenhouse, lined with trays of lettuce and other produce in various stages of growth. All the plants are grown hydroponically, which means their roots are suspended in nutrient-rich water rather than soil. This isn’t so remarkable—hydroponics is a well-known way of conserving water in indoor agriculture—but when the trays start to move seemingly of their own volition, it’s clear that there’s more to this greenhouse than meets the eye. 

Each tray of produce is commandeered by a robot the Iron Ox team refers to as Grover, which resembles an elongated Roomba. Grover’s sole purpose in life is to scoot along the floor and reposition trays so the plants get an optimal amount of sunlight or a fresh dose of nutrients from another robot called Ada, best described as the world’s most advanced water fountain. The small fleet of Grovers and Adas at each facility work together in a tightly coordinated robotic ballet choreographed by cameras feeding images into a machine learning platform. The AI-driven software can automatically determine when plants require different lighting conditions or are due for a nutrient top-off from Ada. With each harvest, the system grows smarter and learns how to better optimize the produce for better taste, yield, and nutrition. 

Iron Ox’s “Grover” robot.

“We want to make a system that can touch everyone in the long run,” Alexander says. “That’s why we need robotics to help scale this in an efficient way, and then combine that with AI and plant science to understand how we can adjust growing conditions to improve things like agriculture’s carbon footprint or the nutrients in the plant.”  

Iron Ox is one of a growing number of companies applying high technology to solve the agriculture industry’s thorniest problems. Many of these companies are focused on vertical farming, an approach to agriculture that involves stacking trays of produce on towering shelves in massive warehouses. While this approach can maximize yield per square foot of growing space, it depends on staggering numbers of LED lights to replicate sunlight. For Alexander, this was a non-starter. 

“We did the math, and we were like, Are we really going to replace this free natural source of energy for plants with LEDs?” he says. “We could never get the numbers to work out in a way that replacing the sun with artificial lighting turned out to be better for the environment or consumer. It would just be taking the most sustainable part of farming and removing it.” 

Iron Ox’s spin on indoor farming is unique in the agtech world, but Alexander is the first to admit that supplying the world’s produce will require a mix of technologies to be successful. And from his perspective, there’s not a moment to waste as the industry’s problems keep piling up.   

One of the biggest challenges facing the future of industrial agriculture is also the most mundane: There simply aren’t enough workers to meet the demand. Picking produce is a grueling job that requires hard labor and long days exposed to the elements. Recent surveys show that most farm operators are struggling to fill positions. They are heavily reliant on migrant and immigrant workers, but this part of the agricultural workforce is rapidly aging as fewer young people enter the sector. The labor shortage has resulted in a marked increase in wasted food, which results in millions of dollars of lost revenue for farmers and strains an already stressed agricultural supply chain. 

Automating some facets of outdoor agriculture can help by reducing the number of workers needed to keep the veggies flowing, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. With the global population expected to balloon to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, it’s going to be a huge challenge to produce enough food. This issue is further complicated by the fact that modern industrial agriculture techniques wreak havoc on soil fertility, which will further erode farmers’ ability to keep up with demand. At the same time, industrial agriculture contributes about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with poor land management practices playing a major role in its carbon footprint. 

Brandon Alexander, CEO and co-founder of Iron Ox.

“Industrial agriculture has optimized for yield at all costs, and this has turned farming into this extractive process with serious environmental impacts,” Alexander says. “I think we’ve over-optimized for the wrong thing. Land is one of our best tools for fighting climate change, and here we are turning it into one of the worst offenders.” 

Unless something changes soon, Alexander fears the world is running head-on into a full-blown food security crisis. Iron Ox is well-positioned to put a big dent into the problems facing modern agriculture, but it’s not a silver bullet. Some crops, especially commodities like corn or soy, aren’t amenable to an indoor growing model. But Alexander is optimistic that advances made in tech-driven indoor agriculture will have a spillover effect that may also transform the way produce is grown outdoors. The revolution in agriculture that Iron Ox is sowing in Texas and California isn’t just about finding creative new ways to apply digital technology to an analog industry—it’s about rethinking our relationship to our food and the planet. 

“At the end of the day, we need to not just optimize for yield as a society,” Alexander says. “We need to think far more holistically about agriculture and consider taste, nutrition, and sustainability. This needs to be front and center of the conversation.”   

Credits: Courtesy of Iron Ox

 
 
 

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