US (PA): Robots take vertical farming to new heights

Fifth Season is the brainchild of brothers Austin and Brac Webb, and co-founder Austin Lawrence. “We view vertical farming as really a smart manufacturing system,” says Austin Webb. “We just happen to manufacture living organisms.”

The partners consider their fledgling enterprise as more than a means to feed people but also a chance to work with a community in need. Almost none of the old steel plant’s employees live in Braddock. Conversely, everyone hired to work at Fifth Season lives close by and in the surrounding communities. “We’re creating a workforce of the future,” Webb says. “It’s an entirely new ag-manufacturing job that hasn’t existed before.”

Two shifts of 20 people oversee operations at the vertical farm. And like the steel maker across the road, the work never stops. Dressed in blue scrubs and lab coats, with heads covered and gloves on their hands, workers inside the plant look more like medical research professionals than farmers. The entire process, from seed to harvest, is controlled robotically. “What we have built is the industry first, and industry only, end-to-end automated platform,” says Webb.

Fifth Season’s proprietary software allows efficiencies otherwise not attainable. Spinach, arugula, and other greens move around the 60,000-square-foot facility in plastic trays, each with its own unique ID. Sensors are constantly monitoring everything from nutrient mix, carbon dioxide levels, and light spectrum, in order to ensure that the greens follow their prescribed grow recipe. Every plant can be traced from any point in the process, at any time.

Every few minutes, a robot glides forward and back along a raised guideway that runs down the center of the room, dividing the stacks in half. The machine is not much more than a plain box, just a few feet tall. A metal beam rises from its back, extending to the ceiling. Its task is to place and remove trays of plants, taking its instructions from the all-knowing software. Because they are so tightly spaced, more trays can be stacked on top of each other, resulting in greater production.

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