Plant Factory: Indoor Farm with Robotic Gardeners Opens

US robotic company “Iron Ox” has opened the first automated leaf-fruit plant near San Francisco. The vision of the company are completely autonomous farms. You could produce fruit and vegetables locally to compensate for the shortage of labor.

You can see a robot arm gripping a plant.

Robots are already taking over large parts of the work in the indoor farm : They put the plants, for example, in larger hydroponic dishes, so they grow faster.

Photo: Iron Ox

The automated plant factory is an approximately 720 square meter indoor plant designed to produce 26,000 leafy vegetables a year. The plants are rooted in mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent, ie without soil. The plant is connected to the offices of Iron Ox. The company’s targeted level of production is similar to that of typical outdoor farms. However, according to the company, they often need up to five times the area to produce the same amount of vegetables.

The recently opened facility is the company’s first step towards realizing the vision of being completely autonomous working farms. From the company’s point of view, they would kill two birds with one stone: on the one hand, the robot gardeners could compensate for the lack of field forces. On the other hand, the automated production facilities guaranteed locally fresh vegetables. Because they consume much less space and are largely independent of weather conditions and temperature fluctuations.

“The Brain” controls and monitors robotic gardeners

Robots already take over large parts of the work in the plant: they take For example, plant the plants individually and gently from the hydroponic culture dishes and plant them in larger culture dishes so that they can grow better. This will maximize vegetable yield and keep plants healthier. Large white transport robots move the about 360-kilogram, water-filled trays of hundreds of vegetables through the plant.

At the beginning, it was difficult to get the individual machines and robots to work together properly. “They did different jobs, but they were not integrated into a production environment,” says co-founder Brandon Alexander. That’s why Iron Ox has developed software called The Brain, which controls and coordinates the collaboration of the machines. The Brain watches over the indoor farm and the robots. The software also keeps an eye on important values ​​for the growth of plants, for example the nitrogen levels and the temperature.

Currently 15 human workers are still supporting the sowing and processing of the vegetable crops. However, the company plans to automate these steps as well. Iron Ox is currently negotiating with local restaurants and grocers. They should become buyers for the leafy vegetables. Until then, the indoor farm supplies the company staff with leafy vegetables – at the company’s own salad bar.

Autonomous farms for the city

Vegetables can also be grown near cities or in cities company founder Alexander is convinced. Autonomous indoor farms could provide food retailers, supermarkets and restaurants with local fresher vegetables. Because it does not take thousands of miles to be transported. Important for the success of the start-up: The vegetable prices must be able to keep up with those of the traditional competitors.

The problem with the autonomous indoor farm is the initial high investment costs, says Yiannis Ampatzidis from the University of Florida. Small plant breeders could not afford it, so the gap between them and big farming companies widened. Lack of financial resources keeps them denied access to the new technologies. Nonetheless, he believes that automated indoor and outdoor agriculture is necessary to tackle the problem of labor shortages.

Indoor Farms in Europe too

Europe is also developing Indoor farms worked: For example, s’Hertogenbosch University near Venlo (the Netherlands) runs a pilot plant called “Brightbox” together with various companies. From the outside, it looks like a windowless warehouse, but indoors plants grow on 7 floors. The vertical construction multiplies the cultivated area here. Because of the floors, the plants must be artificially illuminated with LED light. Salads, radishes and herbs grow here, which – as with Iron Ox – are rooted in a nutrient solution. Also the vertical greenhouse should In the long term, it will become a fully automated plant factory in which robots take over the “gardening”. Six years ago, the concept was still seen as a vision of the future, as the article “Vertical Farms: Cloud Crater with Fruits and Vegetables from 2012 shows.