Produce-growing robots drawing major green investors

SARAH OSENTOSKI, IRON OX SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF ENGINEERING: "I think it's a really exciting way we can move forward in agriculture right now."

Silicon Valley company Iron Ox believes robots may be the answer to growing produce more sustainably, as widespread drought continues to threaten agriculture across the world.

And big investors are noticing.

Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures is betting on them, leading the latest $50 million funding round.

At the company’s 10,000-square foot greenhouse in Gilroy, California, robots are integrated with a hydroponic system the company is using to grow produce.

A robot named Grover moves pallets of produce – mostly Genovese Basil – around the facility.

It’s a delicate task.

Each pallet – known as a module – carries 80 gallons of water with roughly 70 seedlings – around 1,200 pounds of material.

At the dosing station, Grover hands off the pallet to Ada – a robotic arm that uses suction to lift the raft from the water, allowing the roots to be inspected.

Iron Ox claims their system uses 90% less water than traditional farms and 90% less electricity than a vertical farm that uses LED lights.

Senior Vice President of Engineering Sarah Osentoski believes robots like these can help pave the way to a sustainable future.

"I really believe that we need to grow in a way that could feed the future of the world without hurting the earth. So a big part of our mission is to grow more with less. And so we designed these robots to always consider how we could grow with less water and less electricity. So Grover enables us to grow this modular way in a greenhouse environment using the sun, and then Ada allows us to precisely inspect and understand what's going on.”

Water usage is increasingly in the spotlight in California.

The last major drought from 2012 to 2017 reduced irrigation supplies to farmers, forced strict household conservation measures and stoked deadly wildfires.

In this greenhouse, any water not used can be pumped back into the system to be reused later, Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander says.

"It's been an eye opener. I think we're now at a stage where most people understand that conditions are only getting worse.”

Another stop for Grover is the scanning station, where cameras hang above a metal rafter to capture 3-D images of the plant, which scientists use to study the crop’s yield.

ALEXANDER: “We want to give each plant exactly what it needs and nothing it doesn't. We have these sensors that plug into the module and they check the nitrogen content, they check the potassium and phosphorus and acidity, and then they say, what is missing? What does that plant need that we're not giving it."

Other produce in the Gilroy greenhouse includes Thai basil and strawberries, while at the San Carlos headquarters they’re working on cilantro, parsley, tomatoes, and others.

They’re currently building a 535,000-square-foot greenhouse in Lockhart, Texas.

There, they’ll be using 5,400 modules.

OSENTOSKI: "I think it's a really interesting way to bring modern technology in a controlled setting to agriculture. And it lets us do things and grow in ways that are really unique and different.”