Transfarmers: Will robotic farms become mainstream?
- Farming by robots is a new trend in agriculture, with the goal of growing produce in urban areas while conserving water and human labor, according to an article in The Press Herald.
- After raising $6 million, startup Iron Ox spent two years programming autonomous robots to grow and harvest vegetables in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in San Carlos, California. Though no deals have been made official yet, the company plans to start selling soon to San Francisco Bay-area restaurants and supermarkets by next year.
- Long-term, Iron Ox plans to set up robot farms in greenhouses that will rely mostly on sunlight. By bringing the indoor farms to U.S. cities, the company hopes consumers will no longer have to eat food that’s already a week old by the time it has been shipped to their local grocery stores from produce giants California, Arizona and Mexico. On a larger scale, Angus offers a solution to a swelling world population, supplying more people with fresh food without the environmental impact.
As startups prepare for the farming and food industry of the future, it is unclear whether restaurants, retailers and consumers are ready for this technology. For many grocers, investing in a robotic agricultural facility may be a cost that they are not ready to shell out in order to see the long-term effects.
Robots are being used more and more for farming. Cincinnati's planned 80 Acre Farm, which had its groundbreaking last month, will be fully automated. Upon completion, it will include robotics, AI, data analytics and monitoring systems for every aspect of growing produce indoors. Though perhaps initially costly, CEO Mike Zelkind said growing food locally can also be scalable and eventually yield a higher profit. Ultimately, this sort of venture might save in shipping costs — but the starting costs are quite pricey.
The use of robots in the food industry is not new. Although not visible to most shoppers, there are currently many robots being used for packaging. According to Global Markets Insights, the robot packaging market is expected to grow 12% CAGR and will exceed $650 million worldwide by 2023. And Amazon warehouse workers are now working side-by-side with more 100,000 robots, expanding the reach of e-commerce for grocery and beyond.
Still, there are a few more visible uses. Last year Schnucks Markets chain started testing a front-of-the-store robot named Tally, which can scan shelves for inventory and price errors. Providing real-time data, Tally is mainly meant to prevent out-of-stock products on shelves.
But robots are not mainstream. And the high price of product, combined with high installation costs, may hamper growth. Ultimately, while technology and automation can offer improved tools to help address increased output, food safety and better inventory tracking, consumers have to be ready for the change as well.
In an age where consumers want to know more and more about where their food came from and how it supports their values, customer loyalty may take a hit if they know it was processed by robots in a big warehouse. Some people will also always think that companies with robotic facilities are anti-employee — even though opportunities and pay for farming jobs are waning.
- The Press Herald California startup turns to robots for farm labor