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Root AI, a Somerville, Mass.-based startup developing the Virgo harvesting robot for indoor farms, was acquired by AppHarvest for $60 million. AppHarvest is investing approximately $10 million in cash and the remaining balance in AppHarvest common shares to acquire Root AI.
Founded in 2018, Root AI’s 19 full-time employees are expected to join AppHarvest’s technology group. Root AI co-founder and CEO Josh Lessing will take on the role of CTO for AppHarvest. He will take the lead in continuing to develop the robots and AI capabilities for the network of indoor farms AppHarvest is building. Root AI co-founder Ryan Knopf will join AppHarvest as vice president of technology. Lessing spoke at RoboBusiness 2019, which was produced by Robotics Business Review, a sister site to The Robot Report.
Immigration restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic have reportedly exacerbated agricultural labor shortages, particularly in the U.S. The global market for agricultural robotics will experience a compound annual growth rate of 34.5%, growing from $4.6 billion in 2020 to $20.3 billion by 20205, predicts Markets and Markets.
Morehead, Ky.-based AppHarvest is focused on farming more sustainably, claiming it uses 90% less water than open-field agriculture and only recycled rainwater. It said the data Virgo collects as it harvests will help evaluate crop health, precisely predict yield and optimize overall operations of the controlled environment. AppHarvest said its 60-acre Morehead facility is among the largest indoor farms in the U.S.
“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,“ said Lessing. “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.”
How Virgo works
Virgo is a harvesting robot that can identify and harvest multiple crops, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and more. Its tomato dataset, for example, allows its to identify more than 50 varieties of the fruit.
Virgo uses a set of cameras, combined with an IR laser, to generate a 3D color scan of an area to determine the work it can perform. Once it maps the tomatoes, it assesses their orientation and determines if they are ripe enough to pick. The robot can be programmed to make other quality assessments as well.
Root said the scan enables Virgo to find the least obstructive and fastest route to pick the crop ahead of the arrival of the robotic arm and three-fingered, soft robotic gripper. Virgo keeps score on its success rate like a video game. A built-in feedback mechanism constantly evaluates its efficiency so it learns how to harvest any given configuration of fruit most effectively. Lessing and Knopf previously worked at Soft Robotics, a pioneer of soft robotic grippers.
“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. 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,” said AppHarvest Founder & CEO Jonathan Webb. “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.”
Root AI raised $7.2 million in seed funding in August 2020.