The “workhouse and backbone” of Iron Ox’s greenhouse automation system, the Grover mobile stand robot navigates the greenhouse to get plant growing modules wherever they need to be and is able to lift more. 1,000 pounds (Courtesy of Iron Ox)
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to require endless adaptations in the way we move around the world, we are increasingly aware of the changes in the way food arrives on our plates. Labor shortages in the hospitality industry, which saw a quit rate of nearly 7% in 2021, have disrupted operations, resulting in shortened hours of operation and limited menus. The agricultural industry’s workforce has shrunk considerably due to a myriad of outside influences; In addition, the industry is playing a major role in perpetuating its biggest challenge: climate change.
Automation, from the dirt to the dining room, presents a solution, relieving the pressure on restaurateurs, farmers and the land itself as they attempt to meet the challenge of feeding a growing population with desires and varied needs. From labor shortages and supply chain disruptions to the existential threat of climate change, Austin-area businesses focused on the food industry are adopting robotic assistants in hopes of mitigating current challenges and to proactively face the future.
Robots can also have a green thumb
In early 2022, consumers will walk into local Austin grocery stores and see more fresh produce labeled “Texas Grown” than before. Much of it will come from south Austin to Lockhart, and it will have been cultivated sustainably and with the help of artificial intelligence.
California-based Iron Ox opened its last AI-based farm in the spring of 2021. Its hydroponic greenhouses can produce more food and use less resources over 535,000 square feet than a traditional farm of the same size. Indoors, robots help plants thrive in a relationship that is changing the way we think about growing food today.
“Every day and every week our farms are getting more efficient. We give the plants exactly what they need and nothing else. – Brandon Alexander, CEO of Iron OX
Each plant on the farm is analyzed several times during its life cycle to learn more about its needs. Providing the perfect amount of water, nutrients and sunlight needed leads to better production and less waste, says Brandon Alexander, CEO of Iron Ox. He calls this process a nice feedback loop.
“Every day and every week our farms are getting more efficient,” says Alexander. “We give the plants exactly what they need and nothing else. “
Eliminating waste in industry is a major step towards more sustainable growth and Iron Ox technology means more rough estimates. Robots not only take on the laborious and tedious tasks, but also allow farmers to better understand the complex needs of plants. “To create perfect quality products every day, you have to refine each plant,” says Alexander.
Robotics makes this level of detail possible at the scale needed to feed a large population. In the United States, products travel about 1,500 miles on average from farm to fork. Iron Ox greenhouses can be set up near any major city and would make local produce accessible to more people. In the long term, Iron Ox believes this technology could help us reverse climate change and feed the world in a sustainable way.
This machine makes burritos
In collaboration with startup Now Cuisine, Freebirds World Burrito is set to open fully automated burrito bowl kiosks starting this year. The locations for the pilot program are not final, but may include office complexes, airports, hospitals or universities. These kiosks are meant to deliver a hot and cool meal to fleeing people at a time when physical locations are being backed up and overwhelmed.
Render of a Freebirds take-out kiosk, which Freebirds plans to set up in high-traffic areas such as office lobbies, airports and hospitals (Courtesy of Freebirds)
According to Alex Eagle, CEO of the company, there are many good reasons to move in this direction. “Every day I watch employees at our head office in Austin order a lunch that will be delivered to a driver, one bag at a time,” says Eagle. “Customers want delivery, but it’s extremely inefficient both economically and environmentally.”
The kiosks would not only ease the pressure on positions such as cashiers and cooks, but also on delivery drivers. As more people work from home, avoid high traffic areas, or prefer delivery for other reasons, services like UberEats and Grubhub are also struggling to keep up with demand.
“Kiosks will not replace delivery, but they have the potential to meet consumer demand for faster, fresher and cheaper prepared meals in a more environmentally friendly way,” Eagle said.
In North Austin, Sangam Chettinad Indian Cuisine uses robots to bring food to tables. The restaurant had been open for a few years when the pandemic hit. Co-owner Nalluraj Devaraj says their clients have motivated him and his partners to innovate and keep their doors open. “I never closed for a single day,” says Devaraj. “And at first it was difficult.”
“In the future, I am 100% sure that this technology will take over restaurants. – Nalluraj Devaraj, co-owner of Sangam Chettinad Indian cuisine
When the city of Austin announced the dining hall closures, Sangam became an all-take-out operation. When the city announced that the dining rooms could open to 25% of their capacity, Sangam immediately remodeled the interior and was ready to welcome customers the next day. Sangam followed every capacity mandate in the city, eventually fully opening its dining halls.
The more capacity grew, the more difficult it was for Sangam to fill positions and serve clients. When Devaraj first read that robots were used in a restaurant, he knew that technology could be of benefit to Sangam.
While a waiter takes the order, the robot navigates the dining room using sensors to deliver it. Automating this step gives servers more time to work on other tasks, and clients are entertained along the way. Devaraj says the robots are also hygienic and, he hopes, customers will feel more comfortable dining inside. Because some people still prefer to eat at home, bots help manage take out orders for customers who want contactless pickup.
Devaraj says the technology is not flawless and if he were to have multiple robots on the ground at the same time, they would get confused. Although he believes this is the way of the future, robots are just an assistant to employees for now. “In the future, I am 100% sure that this technology will take over restaurants. “