Vertical Farming

How to grow more food with fewer resources

Vertical farming is the practice of stacking plants above one another to grow in a closed and controlled environment. Since these growing systems are used indoors, with high production density and low footprint requirements, they can be set up in locations that would be unsuitable for conventional farms – mostly anywhere, really. This reduces the amount of shipping and handling produce must undergo to get from the "field" to your kitchen counter, resulting in fresher and healthier fruits and vegetables.

Iron Ox takes that production model a step further by replacing manual labour with robotic labour in nearly every aspect of the growing cycle. "We've designed our entire growth process with a robotics-first approach. That means not just adding a robot to an existing process, but engineering everything, including our own hydroponic growth system, around our robots." That includes harvesting, seeding and plant inspection.

“What we found is that the two biggest costs in respect of indoor farming are labour and electricity. Through our new system we're able to do a lot of repetitive tasks more efficiently. But also going forward we'll be using things like greenhouses where we can use sun, which provides energy for free."

The company's growth modules, for example, are large tubs capable of holding up to 800 pounds of nutrient-balanced fluids in which the plants grow and constitute the core of the company's hydroponics system.

"We've laser cut, designed our own wrapping system for the modules and even the pots that the plants grow in. We have developed this food-safe injection moulded plastic to be both robot friendly and to allow good root growth."

But rather than expecting teams of humans to haul the modules around Iron Ox's 8,000-square-foot facility in San Carlos, California, the company has designed a 1,000-pound robot dubbed Angus to perform the heavy lifting.

Angus’ job is to autonomously navigate throughout our greenhouse, find one of these hydroponic grow modules, pick it up and bring it over to our processing area anytime an operation needs to happen.

It is equipped with a 3D-camera that immediately scans every module placed in front of it to confirm the “real-world state of things.” It uses that information to calculate things like, how do I pick up this plant without hurting the nearby plant? With less than an acre of space, the company is able to produce 26,000 heads of produce (from more than a dozen varieties) annually.

Abbreviated from Engadget