Robotic Indoor Vertical Farming Will Transform Agriculture by 2040
Can we envision a better world where A.I., automation and robotic hydroponics provides food security?
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I think a lot about how artificial intelligence will transform global climate change and our environmental priorities. There is one trend where I see a lot of promise.
Around 12,000 years ago there were no farms on Earth. Now in the 21st century we might need robotic in-door farming to scale in order to truly thrive as a species.
I believe the 2020s are the start of a significant shirt to indoor automated agriculture and as food shortages hit due to the Ukraine war it will accelerate this trend.
How robots and indoor farming can help save water and grow crops year round
We need a new model of agriculture to shift our way of life in smart cities and in the 4th industrial revolution.
From flying A.I. to pick our fruit to more automated and controlled indoor agriculture projects, the future of farming is changing.
Climate change and a breakdown in logistics during the pandemic might change our relationship to farming on a fundamental level as a species.
The reality is, agriculture may feed the world, but it is also contributing to global warming.
Think about it, agriculture production uses about 70% of the Earth’s fresh water and makes up about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. In an era of increasing droughts and water scarcity, we cannot continue going as before.
But it doesn’t have to. Farming is moving inside, and farmers aren’t exactly what they used to be. New forms of farming, new technology and new companies are greening the greenery.
Indoor agriculture and vertical farming pilots are all the rage:
This also creates new kinds of jobs in cities and highly populated areas.
How can we put smarter robots to work to feed humanity and reduce our water usage at scale? Take for example Grover and Phil. They are autonomous robots — or farmers of the future, working at Iron Ox, a 6-year-old, Silicon Valley-based farm tech start-up. It grows produce in natural light greenhouses, with the goal of decentralizing farming in order to grow crops closer to consumers in a more sustainable way.
Autonomous indoor farming
Robotic Advanced Hydroponics
“We have different robots that are tending to the plants, they’re checking on it, they’re scanning for issues, and they’re adjusting the amount of nutrients it gets, the amount of water it gets,” explained Brandon Alexander, CEO of Iron Ox.
I have to wonder how the plants feel about it. In many indoor robot vertical farms this is how it works. For one thing typically, this type of farming doesn’t need soil. The plants are stacked on top of each other in rows, their roots immersed in nutrient-rich water. This system – called hydroponics – uses 99% less water than field farming. The plants sit under LED lights which drive their photosynthesis.
I found some interesting data on Grocery dive about this trend:
What is the TAM of Indoor Farming?
Indoor farming was a $79.3 billion market in 2021, according to PitchBook, which expects the segment to expand at a 14.4% compound annual growth rate to hit $155.6 billion by 2026.
The indoor farming space, including growers and providers of growing systems, raised a total of $1.6 billion through 70 deals in 2021, marking a more than 36% year-over-year increase, according to PitchBook. The bulk of this funding — or $1.3 billion — went to indoor growers, which raised 25% more year-over-year.
As controlled environment agriculture (CEA) players raise massive funding rounds and invest in technology to boost their production and cost efficiencies, the segment has tremendous potential to gain even more traction — if it can get a handle on its sizable startup costs.
When automation, robotics and hydroponics meet, what will occur for global food supply chains? Water conservation? How about all that real agricultural land? Just as a robo-taxi city changes our “need” for parking space, so does the future automated agriculture change our relationship with space and the Earth. As we get more efficient we’ll be able to plant a lot of new forests. As the planet’s population begins to decline in the 2060s, that seems sort of inevitable and badly needed.
So we might actually need robotic indoor vertical farming to work and work well. If we want artificial intelligence to truly impact global climate change. All of those shiny ESG investing ideas and narratives. What do they actually add up to in the future?
ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. Investors are increasingly applying these non-financial factors as part of their analysis process to identify material risks and growth opportunities. The environment is considered by many GenZ as one of the most important issues today. Can A.I. impact the future of ESG for GenZ’s cohort and future generations?
There’s a global shortage of seasonal fruit pickers, made worse by COVID-19 travel restrictions. This is made worse by the Great Reshuffle and labor shortages across the board even in 2022. Robots can be used to pick fruit too, you know.
While the risks posed by AI dominate the headlines in the Great automation for actual jobs, behind the scenes there is a quiet revolution underway as AI systems are used to tackle the greatest challenges facing humanity, from climate change and COVID-19, to world hunger, to water conservation and urban sustainability.
World food supply systems and hunger
Clean energy and robotic farming, both indoor and external
In the fourth quarter of 2021, there were 11 indoor farming venture capital deals totaling $489.6 million, according to PitchBook, just about 7% off a high water mark set for deal value the previous quarter. Among the largest in 2021 were Bowery Farming's $320.7 million Series C round in August and a $121.7 million Series B round for Upward Farms, a New York-based vertical farming firm.
Clearly robotic indoor vertical farming could become a big deal. Keep in mind the tech is not quite there yet but shows promise.
A.I. and automation should also be inspiring, that we as humans can change our behavior to build back a better world for the environment, more forests and biodiversity projects. Having more indoor automated vertical farming and less external agricultural space wastage is a huge part of that.
Venture Capital is Going After Indoor Farming
According to a CNBC story I found, Iron Ox is now expanding to Texas, just outside Austin. It sells to retailers such as Whole Foods, as well as to local restaurants. Alexander says the company will produce about 100 times more produce over the next 18 months than it’s currently producing.
The company is backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Crosslink Ventures, R7 Partners, Eniac Ventures, Pathbreaker and i/o Ventures and Amplify Ventures. Total funding to date: $98 million.
What if you could leverage A.I., robotics and hydroponics to become the Amazon of Indoor Farming, what would your company be by mid 21st century?
The global vertical farming market was valued at $1.5 billion in 2016, and the hydroponics segment contributed nearly 42%.
According to research firm Allied Market Research, the global vertical farming market is expected to reach $6.4 billion by 2023.
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Flying autonomous robots can work 24 hours a day, and only pick ripe fruit. Image: Kubota/Tevel.
While it all feels very World Economic Forum agenda-esque, I no doubt see the good in it. Eventually A.I. will be able to can monitor huge hydroponic automated compounds and a fleet of robots with relatively little supervision or human workers. What it if could build such compounds on Mars before humans even set foot on the red planet?
Is this what the future of agriculture will be like? As robotics, ESG and A.I. converge with things like agriculture and how to slow down climate change, we may need to take some radical steps with how we feed huge cities.
If anything things like the Shanghai lockdowns of 2022 are teaching us that food scarcity matters.
Robots do not have to be fixed in place, and can move through a space as needed and A.I. can be used to optimize production, food supply-chain diversification and create safer systems for an uncertain world.
We need to learn to think differently about the future of food and water to adapt as a society to global climate change.
“A lot of the water in field farming gets just washed out and never actually reaches the plant. And when 70% of your fresh water is going into that farming, and only 10% of that actually reaches the plants. It’s just generating a lot of waste.”
It’s not clear how staggering the challenge to feed the planet could become with a rising global population and accelerating climate change.
A 2020 study published by The Lancet from researchers funded by the Global Burden of Disease Study said the most likely scenario projects that world population will peak in 2064 at 9.7 billion and then decline to 8.8 billion in 2100.
In 2019, Agriculture employed a quarter of the world’s workers, or roughly Ag employs 27% of world’s workers and generates 4% of GDP. With robotic indoor farming this is likely to change very drastically in the decades ahead.
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