An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Covid has demonstrated how fragile our supply chain is, but climate change will have an even greater impact, says Josh Lessing PhD ’12, CTO at AppHarvest, a company that develops technologies to automate and enhance food production.

While some automation has been introduced in agricultural food production, says Lessing, the current technology is used only for row crops and is customized to the particular food type—be it corn, wheat, or soy. “We’ve achieved what is truly a first, which is a single robot that can harvest multiple different crops: tomatoes and cucumbers and strawberries.”

So how does a robot harvest crops? The device is equipped with a camera system and infrared laser to evaluate the environment and find the target fruit or vegetable, assessing individual targets for their quality and ripeness. Lessing says these robots—which are being used at AppHarvest’s flagship greenhouse in Morehead Kentucky—stand to revolutionize the productivity of food production and could be used all around the world, in collaboration with a skilled workforce.

“Robots alone are not as productive as robots working alongside people, just as much as people alone are not as productive as robots working alongside people. So, the future of work in this world is collaborative workflows where robotic systems and artificial intelligence [act as] a force multiplier.”

AppHarvest has a suite of products and innovations, as well as its own indoor farm, which covers 60 acres, with more farms on the way, and boast no harsh chemicals, 90 percent less water usage, and 30x greater production than the traditional US farm. The company also has an operational platform, FarmOps, that measures processes on a farm, determining bottlenecks and areas for improvement.

Hear the rest of Lessing’s story in this recent MITAA video.