Keller will join AppHarvest’s rapidly-expanding technology group, which is currently working on operationalizing its Project TalOS platform to produce fresh fruit and vegetables.
“We are massively expanding our team to build out our digital operating model for farming, which has AI at its core that can manage a global network of facilities and effortlessly execute complex supply chain strategies intelligently and autonomously,” said Josh Lessing, AppHarvest chief technology officer.
“Adding an industry veteran like Mark will be a true game changer for this growth phase of our business.”
Keller has spent more than 25 years working in the technology sector including launching Amazon’s first four large-scale Kiva robotics sortable warehouses and PrimeNow Warehouse Management Software used to run the online retailer’s one-hour fulfillment center.
AppHarvest aims to apply Keller’s expertise in predictive robotics and AI to its own software-driven operations as it expands the production of a variety of indoor, sustainably-grown produce.
“The Holy Grail in agriculture is predicting and managing yield and quality,” said AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb.
“Having Mark join will accelerate our efforts as we train our intelligent robot, Virgo, to harvest multiple crops—ranging from tomatoes and cucumbers to more delicate fruits such as strawberries—as we move toward more AI-informed growing.”
AppHarvest is working to develop and deploy universal robotic harvesters, which can be configured to identify and harvest multiple crops of varying sizes. In recent years, AppHarvest has collected the world’s largest data set of tomato images, enabling the company to identify more than 50 varieties across varying stages of maturity, meaning only the ripest tomatoes are picked and sent to retailers, explained the company.
Each robot uses a set of cameras combined with an infrared laser to generate a 3D color scan of an area. Once it maps the tomatoes, the robot assesses their orientation and determines if they are ripe enough to pick. The scan enables the robot to find the least obstructive and fastest route to pick the crop.
The company’s first harvest was tomatoes in January 2021, which it currently sells to the top 25 grocers with locations within a day’s drive of the Central Appalachia region. AppHarvest said that it also supplies its tomatoes to major foodservice outlets in the area, including Wendy’s.
Next year, the company plans to add leafy greens and strawberries to its portfolio.
Addressing water scarcity
“Two of the most pressing global concerns are water scarcity and creating resilient food supply, and AppHarvest is solving for both,” said Keller.
The company’s 60-acre indoor farming facility located in Morehead, Kentucky, uses recycled rainwater contained in a 10-acre retention pond which travels through a circular irrigation system to reach the plants.
Before entering the farm’s closed-loop irrigation system, the water is double-filtered with sand and UV light, according to the company. From there, each plant receives exact amounts of water via drip irrigation.
As a result of this system, AppHarvest uses 90% less water than open-field agriculture, said the company.