Image: AppHarvest

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the interconnected global supply chains. At times, pandemic-related disruptions in the food supply have forced US producers to bury crops and plow edible produce into fields. On Thursday, indoor agriculture company AppHarvest announced that it had acquired RootAI, a robotic agtech company. The news could help shore up fragilities in the global food supply with artificial intelligence, sustainable farming practices and more.

“Farming as we’ve known it is broken because of the increasing number of variables such as extreme weather, droughts, fire and contamination by animals that make our food system unreliable,” said AppHarvest Founder and CEO Jonathan Webb.

“Indoor farming solves for many of those challenges, and the data gathered can exponentially deliver more insights that help us predict and control crop quality and yield,” Webb continued.

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Last fall, AppHarvest planted its first crops of tomatoes at its sprawling 2.76 million-square-foot indoor farming complex in Morehead, Kentucky, and the company announced that it had “surpassed shipment of 1 million pounds of sustainably grown Beefsteak tomatoes” in February. As part of the acquisition, Josh Lessing, Root AI co-founder and CEO, will become AppHarvest’s CTO and lead the development of “robots and their AI capabilities for the network of indoor farms that AppHarvest is building,” the release said.

“One of the key challenges in agriculture is accurately predicting yield. Many downstream decisions from work scheduling to transportation to retail planning are based on that. Any deviation between projection and actual yield can result in fire drills for numerous functions to adjust for the change, and AI can help solve for that,” Webb said.

The robotic harvester uses a suite of cameras and infrared laser to map its work environment and uses this information to assess a tomato’s orientation and gauge whether it is “ripe enough to pick,” the release said, and these scans allow Virgo to determine the “least obstructive and fastest route” to pluck produce using its onboard gripper and arm.

In August, Root AI’s produce-picking harvesting robot, Virgo, flexed new dexterity skills as it picked strawberries and cucumbers. (In previous videos, Virgo was shown picking tomatoes off the vine.)

“A piece of food—whether that’s a tomato or a berry or a cucumber—is an outcome from many variables that are part of the growing process. Enhanced data collection for each plant through the robot can lead to insights that teach us precisely how to design better, more resilient food systems that are reliable and that produce more food with fewer resources,” Lessing said.

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AppHarvest expects the Morehead complex to produce about 45 million pounds of tomatoes each year, according to a press release, and the company has a stated goal of building 12 farms throughout Kentucky and Central Appalachia before the end of 2025.

“Joining forces with AppHarvest is a natural fit: we want to ensure a stable, safe supply of the nutritious and healthy food that people should be eating—grown sustainably—and doing that at the scale of AppHarvest gives us the opportunity to make the greatest difference,” Lessing said.