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Indoor farming specialist AppHarvest acquires agricultural robotics firm

by Ben Wodecki
Article ImageSnaps up efficient tomato pickers in a $60 million deal

AgTech firm AppHarvest has acquired Root AI, a Massachusetts startup that develops autonomous robots to help manage indoor farms.

The acquisition of Root AI and Virgo, its universal harvester, will provide AppHarvest with a baseline of robotic labor, working alongside human crop care specialists focused on more complex tasks.

The deal is valued at around $60 million, consisting of approximately $10 million in cash and the balance in AppHarvest common shares – with the company having debuted on NASDAQ Global Select Market in February.

In them old tomato fields back home

Founded in 2018, Root AI is based in Somerville, Mass., and employs 19 full-time staff, all of whom are expected to join AppHarvest’s technology group.

The acquisition will see Root AI co-founder and CEO Josh Lessing become AppHarvest’s Chief Technology Officer. Another co-founder, Ryan Knopf, will join AppHarvest as vice president of technology.

The pair will continue to develop robots and AI capabilities for the network of indoor farms being built by AppHarvest.

AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb commented, “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.”

“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 describes its Virgo robot as the world’s first universal harvester, able to identify and pick multiple crops of varying sizes including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and more delicate fruits such as strawberries.

Though Virgo can work outdoors, the robot’s focus has been on controlled environments. Over the past three years, it has been collecting tomato images to enable it to identify more than 50 varieties in multiple growing environments and at varying stages of maturity to learn how, and when, to harvest.

According to Root, Virgo uses a set of cameras combined with an infrared 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.”

What’s more, the actual AI workload takes place on the device itself, rather than in a data center: “The robot can identify hundreds of tomatoes in a fraction of a second without having to connect to the cloud.”

Virgo then reportedly keeps score on its success rate, with a built-in feedback mechanism that evaluates its efficiency, helping it learn how to harvest any given configuration of fruit most effectively.

“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.

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