Automation Is the Future of Food, and the Future Is Now

AI on your plate

The "workhouse and backbone" of Iron Ox's greenhouse automation system, mobile support robot Grover navigates through the greenhouse to get plant-growing modules wherever they need to be and is capable of lifting more than 1,000 pounds (Courtesy of Iron Ox)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to necessitate endless adaptations in how we move through the world, we're increasingly aware of shifts in how food arrives on our plates. Labor shortages in the hospitality industry, which experienced a quit rate of nearly 7% in 2021, have disrupted operations, leading to shortened business hours and limited menus. The agriculture industry's workforce has declined dramatically due to myriad outside influences; additionally, the industry plays a major role in perpetuating its biggest challenge: climate change.

Automation, from dirt to dining room, presents a solution, relieving pressure on restaurateurs, farmers, and the land itself as they attempt to meet the challenge of feeding a growing population with varied desires and needs. From labor shortages and supply chain disruptions to the existential threat of climate change, Austin-area businesses centered in the food industry are embracing robotic helpers in the hopes of mitigating current challenges and proactively facing the future.

Robots Can Have Green Thumbs, Too

By early 2022, consumers will walk into local Austin grocery stores and see more fresh produce labeled "Texas Grown" than before. Much of it will be sourced from just south of Austin in Lockhart, and it will have been grown sustainably and with the help of artificial intelligence.

California-based Iron Ox broke ground on its latest AI-enabled farm in spring 2021. Its hydroponic greenhouses can grow more food and use fewer resources in 535,000 square feet than a traditional farm the same size. Inside, robots help plants thrive in a relationship that is changing how we think about growing food today.

“Every day and every week our farms become more efficient. We give plants exactly what they need and nothing they don’t.” – Iron OX CEO Brandon Alexander

Each plant on the farm is scanned multiple times in its life cycle to learn more about what it needs. Providing the perfect amount of water, nutrients, and sunshine necessary leads to better produce and less waste, says Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander. He refers to this process as a beautiful feedback loop.

"Every day and every week our farms become more efficient," says Alexander. "We give plants exactly what they need and nothing they don't."

Eliminating waste in the industry is a major step in growing more sustainably and Iron Ox technology means no more rough estimates. The robots not only take on the laborious and tedious task work but also give farmers a better understanding of the plants' complex needs. "To create perfect quality produce every single day, you have to be fine-tuning on a per-plant basis," says Alexander.

Robotics makes that level of detail possible on the scale necessary to feed a large population. In the United States, produce travels around 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 available to more people. In the long run, Iron Ox believes this technology could help us reverse climate change and ultimately feed the world sustainably.

This Machine Makes Burritos

In a collaboration with the startup Now Cuisine, Freebirds World Burrito is set to open completely automated burrito bowl kiosks starting this year. Locations for the pilot program aren't 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 overextended.

Rendering of a Freebirds takeout kiosk, which Freebirds plans to put in highly foot-trafficked areas like office lobbies, airports, and hospitals (Courtesy of Freebirds)

According to Alex Eagle, the company's CEO, there are many good reasons to move in this direction. "Every day I watch employees in our Austin-based headquarters order lunch to be delivered one driver, one bag at a time," says Eagle. "Guests want delivery, but it is extremely economically and environmentally inefficient."

Kiosks would not only ease the strain on positions like cashiers and cooks, but delivery drivers as well. 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 meet demand.

"Kiosks will not replace delivery, but they hold the potential to meet consumer demand for prepared meals that are faster, fresher, and cheaper in a more environmentally friendly way," says Eagle.

Server Bots

In North Austin, Sangam Chettinad Indian Cuisine uses robots to bring food to tables. The restaurant had been open for a couple of years when the pandemic hit. Part-owner Nalluraj Devaraj says their customers motivated him and his partners to innovate and keep their doors open. "I never closed for a single day," says Devaraj. "And in the beginning, it was tough."

“In the future, I’m 100% positive this technology will take over restaurants.” – Sangam Chettinad Indian Cuisine co-owner Nalluraj Devaraj

When the city of Austin announced dining room closures, Sangam became a fully to-go operation. When the city announced dining rooms could open at 25% capacity, Sangam immediately rearranged the inside and was ready to seat customers the very next day. Sangam followed each city capacity mandate, eventually opening its dining rooms completely.

The more capacity grew, the more Sangam struggled to fill positions and serve customers. When Devaraj first read about robots being used within a restaurant, he knew the technology could be an asset in Sangam.

While a server takes the order, the robot navigates through the dining room using sensors to deliver it. Automating this step affords waitstaff more time to work on other tasks and the customers are entertained along the way. Devaraj says the robots are also sanitary and, he hopes, make customers feel more comfortable while dining inside. Because some people still prefer to eat at home, the robots help manage to-go orders for guests who want contactless pickup.

Devaraj says the technology isn't flawless and if he were to have multiple robots on the floor at the same time, they would become confused. Although he believes this is the way of the future, the robots are only an assistant to the employees for now. "In the future, I'm 100% positive this technology will take over restaurants."

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Iron Ox, Freebirds, Sangam Chettinad

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