Wednesday 16 October 2019

Irish ex-Nasa ace joins US vertical farmer Plenty

Dublin robotics expert is making farming smarter at Bezos-backed firm, writes John Reynolds

Nasa’s Mars Rover was worked on by Conor McGann
Nasa’s Mars Rover was worked on by Conor McGann
Conor McGann

John Reynolds

A Dublin-born artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics expert who previously worked on the Mars Rovers vehicle at Nasa, has joined Plenty, a US vertical farming firm that is backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Japan's SoftBank.

Conor McGann, who hails from Monkstown in Dublin, is leading the development of the software and data systems at Plenty, which aims to grow organic produce such as strawberries, tomatoes, kale and various salad greens in huge warehouses close to major cities.

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The farms, which aim to cut down on so-called 'food miles,' and reduce the water and carbon footprint of food, use climate control and vast amounts of LED lights to stimulate growth of crops, while robots are utilised in harvesting them.

However, critics have pointed to the vast amounts of electricity used in the process and questioned the efficiency and economics of farming this way.

McGann directed questions about his role at Plenty to a spokeswoman, who said: "He leads the development of the software and data systems to power a Plenty farm, that is putting the "smart" into smart agriculture. Long-term, we see expansion both domestically in the US and internationally. China and the Middle East are still on the road map, but we have not shared any specific details yet."

McGann studied maths and engineering at Trinity College, then took a PhD in computer science, later moving to the US in 1998.

In his five years at Nasa from 2002, he worked on technologies used on the Mars Rover vehicles, including AI used in its task planning and execution. He also contributed to work on space stations and satellites, and later underwater exploration robots used in marine research.

In 2011, he founded a customer care tech firm Solariat - his second software startup. It was bought in 2014 by Genesys, the US customer service and call centre tech firm that also bought former RTÉ Dragon's Den investor Barry O'Sullivan's Galway-based software firm AltoCloud.

"Galway became a centre of gravity for conversational AI. My firm Solariat had partnered with Salesforce for their insights service, and our social customer care product was integrated with Solariat and Hootsuite," McGann said, adding that the terms of the sale were not disclosed.

He subsequently spent just over five years at Genesys, including the last 15 months working on AI there.

He and his wife are also the founders of Wizbots, a San Francisco business which uses Lego robots to teach children aged eight to 14 about robotics and coding.

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