By Gwen Ackerman
On a rooftop in the Jewish-Arab Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, a former military technologist and an ex-journalist sit in a transparent bio-dome where their robot is busy learning how to grow food.
Flux IoT’s Eddy, a robot measuring less than a foot tall and resembling a life buoy, is built with military-grade sensors and armed with image-processing technology.
Its inventors intend it to become the industry standard for commercial and amateur indoor farmers who want to grow pesticide-free, water-efficient crops via hydroponics”•a method of growing plants without soil. Eddy sits in the growing reservoir, and users can stay updated on their crops’ progress via a mobile app, where information gleaned from fellow farmers can help them know when to change the lighting or add nutrients.
Currently closing a $2-million seed funding to start manufacturing, Flux is planning another financing round of as much as $8 million later this year, its size dependent on how many robots sell on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo Inc., said chief executive officer Blake Burris. It’s also growing its US team, primarily based in Colorado, while research and development will remain in Israel. The Israeli team is led by co-founder and chief technology officer Amichai Yifrach, who previously built nano sniffers to detect explosives and image processing tools to protect US troops at checkpoints in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“In the army you build perimeter security using imaging processes and webcams that can see things the human eye can’t,” said Flux VP of marketing and co-founder Karin Kloosterman, a former journalist. “With that technology Eddy can look at a plant and detect nutrient deficiency and tell you what it is. Right now you have to be a trained agronomist to know.”
Zirra.com Ltd., an Israeli startup that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze the private tech market, says Flux’s offering “poses significant disruption in their relevant space,” but that the price of the robot could be a “showstopper.”
Burris says they plan to sell Eddy for $179, and expect to sell anywhere between 10,000 to 25,000 robots this year. Rival SmartBee Controllers, which provides water content sensors, sells starter systems starting at $2,500. A water content sensor alone costs between $350 and $400.
Hydroponic farming is growing in importance as government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture reflect on the potential impact of industrial or conventional farming, including soil productivity decline, pollution and depletion of natural resources such as water.
According to global market research firm IBISWorld, the US hydroponic industry alone will reach $856.8 million by 2021, from $821 million in 2016 and the number of businesses will jump from 2,347 to more than 3,000. Flux sees home gardeners as a target market, and in the US 42 million households grow food at home, according to The National Gardening Association.
Scotts Miracle-Grow Co., the world’s largest seller of lawn and garden products, bought an Arizona-based company in October to boost its hydroponics offering. New Zealand-based Bluelab, a global supplier of testing and control equipment for hydroponics, gives basic readings that are linked to a computer and is also working on a mobile app. One of the big markets for hydroponic equipment are cannabis growers.
Flux will assemble the first few thousand robots in Israel, and if demand expands as expected, manufacturing will move to China shortly thereafter.
The intersect in hydroponics is also spreading between worlds. Elon Musk has plans for a Martian colony, NASA is trying hydroponics out in space, and the European Space Agency is cooperating with the Space Farm Collective led by a Netherlands Border Labs team on ways to grow food on planets other than Earth. Thieme Hennis, head of the Space Farm Collective, is testing out Eddy to see how it might help a citizen science project called Watch Me Grow, aimed at finding plants that will grow best in space, and improve ways even the public can grow their own food on Earth.
“Eddy has to prove itself on a larger scale, but something like this is necessary and offers an interface for non-professional and professional growers alike to understand and ‘talk’ with plants,” said Hennis.