Vertical Farming Takes Food Production to Greater Heights
As climate change wreaks havoc on agriculture, discover how vertical farming takes crop growth indoors. Could this technology be the key to highly sufficient and sustainable food production?
Farmers are at the mercy of nature’s whims, with insects, viruses, and extreme weather wreaking havoc on crops. On the other side of the equation, agricultural productivity also takes its toll on the earth. According to the latest Global Land Outlook report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), food systems are the top culprit of land degradation, accounting for 80% of deforestation, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of the world’s freshwater use. It is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss across the globe.
We’re running out of land, we’re exhausting natural resources, and we need to boost productivity. It’s a bleak situation, but there’s hope rising on the horizon with vertical farming.
How it works
Vertical farming is a modern farming technology where crops are grown in vertically stacked layers. This method uses environmentally controlled agricultural technology, artificially regulating temperature, lighting, and gas levels.
With vertical farming, we can increase crop yields in a smaller space compared to traditional agriculture–growing crops in tower-like structures located in shipping containers, warehouses, skyscrapers, and even underground bomb shelters.
Instead of natural light, vertical farms use artificial lighting such as LED lights, fluorescent grow lights, and high-pressure sodium lights (HPS). Vertical farmers also employ alternatives to soil-based growing methods: aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics.
In aeroponics, plant roots are suspended in the air and misted with a nutrient solution. In hydroponics, plants are grown directly in nutrient-rich water. Materials like coconut fiber, vermiculite, peat moss, perlite, and rockwool provide root support. Aquaponics marries aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics, with the plants and fish working symbiotically.
The advantages of vertical farming
Year-round crop growth with less space, less chemical usage, less water consumption, and a reduced environmental impact--vertical farming can help solve many problems in the food production industry.
The rise of vertical farming
Let’s see how companies around the world are harnessing cutting-edge technologies such as sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), automation, robotics, data science, cameras, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to take vertical farming to greater heights.
Based in Canada, CubicFarms was founded by Jack Benne and his son Leo Benne, who are both farmers. In 2008, they traveled to a farm in Puerto Rico that had been devastated by a hurricane. Their experience inspired them to design an automated indoor growing system that would maximize space while minimizing environmental impact.
With the company’s Crop Motion™technology, hundreds of growing trays cycle under LED lights while being given a specific amount of nutrients and water based on an app. CubicFarm’s hydroponic growing system uses 95% less water than traditional growing methods. According to its website, one CubicFarm System module can yield more than 1,900 heads of lettuce weekly.
The company has also developed technology for livestock feed–the HydroGreen Grow System. With this technology, livestock farmers can grow up to 25 million pounds of fresh livestock feed annually while using just one-tenth of the water needed for growing traditional livestock feed in irrigated fields.
Founded in 2004, AeroFarms uses the latest breakthroughs in AI and plant biology for its commercial-scale indoor vertical farms. The company’s proprietary growing technology platform has enabled it to grow over 550 varieties of greens that are sold by U.S. retail giants such as Walmart, Whole Foods, and Amazon Fresh.
AeroFarms is building a state-of-the-art research center in Abu Dhabi, the AeroFarms AgX. At 54,000 square feet, it will be the world’s largest indoor vertical farm for research and development. The center will employ 60 scientists, horticulturists, and engineers who will develop ways that machine learning, advanced speed breeding, robotics, and other technologies can improve vertical farming.
Founded in 2017, this Finnish vertical farm company fuses agriculture, IT, and science to create solutions for automated indoor urban farming. The company offers modular vertical farm systems for growing salads, herbs, and berries. Its iFarm GrowTune software is an all-in-one farming tool that plans and schedules planting, provides instructions for plant care, monitors daily activities and production, and enables remote climate control. Autonomous drones with computer vision gather plant data, track crop growth, and spot potential diseases.
The state-of-the-art greenhouses of this California-based company use plant science, robotics, AI, and natural sunlight to grow leafy greens, herbs, fruits, and berries. According to Iron Ox, their greenhouses use around 90% less water, 75% less electricity than LED-based vertical farms, and 15x more food per acre than field farms.
The company has two robots for its fully autonomous indoor farms: Grover and Max.
A mobile support robot, Grover can lift more than 1,000 pounds and is equipped with multiple LiDAR systems as well as upward- and forward-facing camera systems. Grover assists in monitoring, watering, and harvesting crops.
Max is a filling station robot. Equipped with advanced sensors, he can identify changes in a plant module’s water, nutrient mix, and pH levels, enabling plant scientists to make data-driven decisions for each plant.
(Also read: How Robots Help the Food Industry Grow)
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