California startup uses robots in greenhouses to grow crops

A California company uses robots to grow plants in greenhouses that it says use 90% less water than traditional farms.

The Iron Ox company operates several greenhouses and plans to expand. He recently announced a new investment of $ 50 million. Funding was led by Breakthrough Energy Companies, a company created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

At a 930 square meter facility in Gilroy, Calif., Iron Ox uses an autonomous robot named Grover to transport containers of plants. The large greenhouse uses hydroponics, a system designed to grow plants in materials other than soil, such as water.

Genoese basil plants sit in a module of the Iron Ox greenhouse in Gilroy, California, USA on September 15, 2021. Photo taken on September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

The company claims that each container, called a module, carries 30 liters of water and about 70 plants as it moves. Another machine uses robotic arms to lift the tops of the plants out of the water. This allows the roots to be inspected. Sensors also examine the water, measuring nitrogen levels and acidity.

Iron Ox says the system uses 90 percent less water than traditional farms, as well as 90 percent less electricity than indoor farms using LED lights. LED stands for Light Emitting Diode, which produces light up to 90% more efficiently than ordinary lights.

Sarah Osentoski is the company’s senior vice president of engineering. She told Reuters news agency she believed robots like these could help prepare for a durable future. “I think it’s a really exciting way to move forward in farming right now,” Osentoski said.

Sarah Osentoski, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Iron Ox, kneels next to the Autonomous Robot Grover in the Silicon Valley Company Greenhouse in Gilroy, California, United States, September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

Sarah Osentoski, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Iron Ox, kneels next to the Autonomous Robot Grover in the Silicon Valley Company’s greenhouse in Gilroy, California, United States, September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

“I truly believe that we have to grow in a way that can feed the future of the world without harming the Earth,” she added. “So a big part of our mission is to grow more with less. “

The company notes that in its greenhouses, any unused water can be pumped into the system for reuse later.

Agriculture is an important part of California’s economy. But the use of water is a growing concern. The last big Drought in 2012-2017, they cut water for farmers, imposed limits on household use and fueled deadly forest fires.

Modules of Genoese basil and other plants are seen in the Iron Ox greenhouse in Gilroy, California, United States on September 15, 2021. Photo taken on September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

Modules of Genoese basil and other plants are seen in the Iron Ox greenhouse in Gilroy, California, United States on September 15, 2021. Photo taken on September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

Iron Ox currently grows Thai basil and strawberries and works on cilantro, parsley, and tomatoes. The company plans to build a new 50,000 square meter greenhouse in Lockhart, Texas. There, the robots will move around 5,400 modules.

Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander told Reuters that the founding of the company was “a revelation” for him and others. “I think we are now at a to organise where most people understand that conditions are only getting worse, ”he said.

The system includes another inspection station which uses aerial cameras to capture three-dimensional (3D) images of the plant. Scientists use this data to study agricultural production levels.

Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander poses for a portrait in the company's greenhouse in Gilroy, California, United States on September 15, 2021. Photo taken on September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander poses for a portrait in the company’s greenhouse in Gilroy, California, United States on September 15, 2021. Photo taken on September 15, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

“We want to give each plant exactly what it needs and nothing else,” Alexander said. Once the sensors have examined the plants, the system provides suggestions for what is missing. “What does this plant need that we don’t give it.”

Sarah Osentoski sees the inner robotic system expand in the years to come to become a scalable model. “I think it’s a really interesting way to bring modern technology in a controlled setting to agriculture. And it allows us to do things that really grow unique and different, ”she said.

I am Bryan Lynn.

Reuters reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.

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Words in this story

business nm a new business activity that may or may not be successful

acidity nm the amount of acid in substance

durable – adj. involving methods that do not deplete or completely destroy natural resources

Drought nm a long period of time when there is very little or no rain

to organise – adj. a period of development

three-dimensional (3D) – adj. having or appearing to have length, depth and height

scalable – adj. able to grow or be enlarged

unique adj. different from most other things

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