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Vertical Farming & The Internet of Things

In the last post, we were looking at vertical farming applications in and around the home. One of the applications we looked at was a project called RUFS (Robotic Urban Farm System). One of the cool aspects of that project was its inclusion of IOT – short for the Internet of Things.

If you haven’t heard of IOT before, its both an exciting and cautionary technology, in which everyday items, like clothing, furniture and cars, can be monitored and controlled, remotely over the internet. The scope and potential of this technology are huge, enabling things like smart grids, smart homes, smart cities, and intelligent transport.

More importantly for us, it has applications in vertical farming. As we saw with RUFS, their usage of IOT within the project enabled water to be cycled by a timer, the measurement of natural light to then activate artificial lighting to maximize growing efficiency,  monitor temperature, nutrition and pH levels in the water. All of this information is collected for analytical benefits, alerting of issues (Like poor pH levels) and the enabling of corrective actions, like the introduction of a pH balancing agent into the water. These are only some of the ways in which IOT can be beneficial to vertical farming.

Sensors

The first major area where IOT becomes beneficial is through data collections – sensors either embedded in the growing beds or dynamically moved between plants capture and record different sets of data about plant conditions, environmental conditions or resource conditions – all of which can be relayed back to the end user as individual, collective or statistical data. The sensors can collect a wide range of data, including:

  • Water quantity
  • Water quality i.e. nutrition and pH levels
  • Water temperature
  • Soil moisture
  • Soil temperature
  • Environmental data like wind speed, light levels, air pressure, humidity, CO2 levels

If a system incorporates higher tech sensors, such as cameras, other possibilities open up as well, like:

  • Image recognition of weeds
  • Image recognition of disease symptoms in the plants

While not all of these would apply to certain vertical farm installations, they all can provide a farmer with immensely valuable data, allowing the customization of plant growing conditions, resource cost predictions, resource management, harvest predictions, and produce quality control.

Sensors can also be used to alert the farmer of issues within the system – if a sensor detects that no water is passing through a given pipe or reservoir, the farmer can be notified, thus enabling them to fix the issue, say a blocked pump – something which otherwise may have gone undetected, cause loss of produce.

Remote Control & Monitoring

The next benefit that can be afforded by IOT integration is remote control and monitoring. The no longer has to be on site to tend to their crop, smartphone apps and web apps can allow the farmer to log in from anywhere in the world, view the plants, view the resource levels, read through the analytical data, etc.

For a control use case, let’s say that the system notified the farmer that one of the plants is showing signs of illness. The farmer can take control of the system, view the plant in question and make their own assessment of the plants health – if the assessment confirms the plants poor condition, the farmer can either manually control the system and removed the plant, or authorize the system to removed the plant itself – all from the palm of their hand.

Automation

A huge plus to both the implementation of sensors and remote monitoring and control, is that it improved availability – more plants isn’t strictly an issue when they can all be managed efficiently – what doesn’t scale well is the requirement for there to be manual input – what may only be one manual task, when scaled up, could become a full-time job, just carrying out that one task. Which is where automation comes in.

Now granted, while there will for the foreseeable future always be some jobs that require manual input, there are a lot of tasks that could be automated. There is one project, that is described by its creator as Roomba for the garden – in fact, Joe Jones‘s was a co-creator of the Roomba while working at iRobot. He also co-created a floor scrubbing robot, called Scooba. Co-founding his own company, Franklin Robotics, he’s now helped create Tertill (pronounced ‘turtle’) – an automated weeding robot. While weeds are less of a problem in vertical farms, its examples like the Tertill, that show how automation can play a role in gardening of the future, and within vertical farms.

A Wider Application

IOT also has a wider application for vertical farming – as mentioned earlier, IOT enables systems like smart grids and intelligent transport – and making use of those technologies, a vertical farm company could have databases that track local food demand from restaurants and supermarkets, customizing its production and delivery to match. Tapping into other aspects of a smart city, the vertical farms themselves could ‘talk’ to the power grid, adding power or drawing it, as and when required.

Existing Tools

There are some companies that are already providing the tools and software packages that enable this type of smart, automated farming to occur, if so less vertically. A company called Autogrow provides a range of products including:

  • Remote pH level Controller
  • Electrical Connectivity  Controller
  • Automated Nutrients & Irrigation Controller
  • Automated Climate Controller
  • Central Control Systems
  • Web/App Combination Software Management System

Farmbot

Last but not least, I’ve included this because I not only see huge potential for everyday, urban food production, but I also see this technology playing a huge role in the scalability of stacked bed vertical farming. Take a look at the Farmbot ‘trailer’ below.

Farmbot Genesis is an open source, automated farming machine, that can currently seed, water, weed and monitor a garden bed. The creators have also discussed the ability for the system to have other functionality added, like the ability to harvest plants as well, thanks to its universal tool system, which is what enables Farmbot to be so multifunctional. It can be bought as either a kit and self0assembled or all of the plans and software can be downloaded, then the parts bought or manufactured and assembled by anyone.

P.S.

Interested in today’s topics? Check out the links below

The Internet of Things

IOT for food production

A deeper look at Farmbot

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