The “workshop and backbone” of Iron Ox’s greenhouse automation system, the Grover mobile support robot navigates the greenhouse to get plant growing modules where they need to be and is able to lift over 1000 lbs. (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 changes in the way food gets to 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 and limited menus. The agriculture industry workforce has shrunk dramatically due to a myriad of outside influences; In addition, the industry plays a major role in perpetuating its greatest 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 try 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, food-industry-centric Austin-area businesses are embracing robotic helpers in hopes of mitigating current challenges and proactively address the future.
Robots can also have green thumbs
In early 2022, consumers will enter local grocery stores in Austin 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 grown sustainably and with the help of artificial intelligence.
California-based Iron Ox opened its latest AI-enabled farm in the spring of 2021. Its hydroponic greenhouses can produce more food and use fewer resources on 535,000 square feet than a traditional farm of the same size. Inside, robots help plants thrive in a relationship that is changing the way we think about food culture today.
“Every day and every week, our farms become more efficient. We give plants exactly what they need and nothing extra. – 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 products and less waste, says Brandon Alexander, CEO of Iron Ox. He refers to this process as a nice feedback loop.
“Every day and every week our farms become more efficient,” says Alexander. “We give the plants exactly what they need and nothing superfluous.”
Eliminating waste in industry is a major step towards more sustainable growth and Iron Ox technology means no more guesswork. 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 every plant,” says Alexander.
Robotics makes this level of detail possible at the scale needed to feed a large population. In the United States, produce travels about 1,500 miles on average from farm to plate. Iron Ox’s 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 ultimately feed the world sustainably.
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. Pilot program locations are not final, but may include office complexes, airports, hospitals or universities. These kiosks are intended to deliver a fresh hot meal to people on the run at a time when brick-and-mortar locations are backed up and overused.
Rendering of a Freebirds take-out kiosk, which Freebirds plans to install in high-traffic areas like office lobbies, airports and hospitals (Courtesy of Freebirds)
According to Alex Eagle, CEO of the company, there are many good reasons to go in this direction. “Every day, I watch the employees at our Austin-based headquarters order lunch to be delivered to a driver, one bag at a time,” says Eagle. “Customers want delivery, but it’s extremely inefficient 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 won’t 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 says.
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 customers have motivated him and his partners to innovate and keep their doors open. “I never closed a single day,” says Devaraj. “And at first it was hard.”
“In the future, I’m 100% confident that this technology will take over restaurants.” – Nalluraj Devaraj, co-owner of Sangam Chettinad Indian Cuisine
When the city of Austin announced dining hall closures, Sangam became an all-to-go operation. When the city announced dining halls could open at 25% 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.
As capacity grew, Sangam found it harder to fill positions and serve customers. When Devaraj first heard about robots being used in a restaurant, he knew the technology could be an asset 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 customers are entertained along the way. Devaraj says the robots are also hygienic and, he hopes, customers feel more comfortable dining inside. Because some people still prefer to eat at home, robots help manage take-out orders for customers who want contactless pickup.
Devaraj says the technology is not perfect and if he had multiple robots on the floor at the same time, they would get confused. Although he thinks it’s the way of the future, robots are just an assistant for employees for now. “In the future, I’m 100% confident that this technology will take over restaurants.”