Gardening and the Internet of Things
For many, growing food is an opportunity to escape technology and pursue a simple and natural pastime. But what happens when technology takes over? Good things, apparently. Alan Ray explains how the Internet of Things can help grow perfect crops.
Describing the Internet of Things (IoT) in elementary terms is challenging. The concept is simple yet complex. Mind boggling in its scope, yet readily conceivable. The most accurate description is this: The interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects allowing them to send and receive data.
Essentially, computer chips containing data gathered from sensors and actuators embedded into an object are able to relay that information over a given network, reporting its current status, whereabouts, condition, and more depending on its purpose. The IoT is more machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, with less need for human interaction.
What began as an innovative method of tracking product merchandise has morphed to include literally anything you can stick a chip on, creating a world of connected devices.
What’s in a Name?
This slightly awkward term, The Internet of Things, was first coined in 1999 by UK-born technology visionary and sensory pioneer, Kevin Ashton. The Internet of Things was the title of a presentation Ashton gave to executives at corporate giant Proctor and Gamble.
In that presentation, he described an IoT system whereby the physical world could connect to the internet via a series of ubiquitous sensors. “If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss, and cost,” he said.
Ashton states the concept of embedding computer chips into everyday devices once known as ‘Embedded Computing’, is now widely referred to as ‘Ubiquitous Computing’.
Ubiquitous indeed. In Brazil, for example, in an effort to quell illegal deforestation, M2M sensors are being installed in select trees in the Brazilian rain forest. These sensors are superior to conventional satellite monitoring in that, when a sensor-equipped tree is cut down, authorities are automatically notified of its removal. With the attached chip also sending out a GPS signal, authorities are able to track down and locate the illegally harvested tree.
From pacemakers to Fitbits to Smartphones and beyond, applications for this Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are virtually limitless. The Internet of Things is changing the way the world works and now, even the way we farm.
The IoT Meets Hydroponics
High-tech growrooms incorporating an IoT platform are springing up around the globe in the effort to feed a growing population. An IoT-controlled agricultural environment runs more efficiently, increases production, and produces food of unmatched quality, year-round.
This is great news for cold climate countries with shorter growing seasons and for those places where farmland is being paved over at a distressing rate.
At the forefront of this new and exciting indoor agribusiness is the Fujitsu Hydroponics Farm in Aizuwakamatsu, Japan. For years, a world-beater in the production of transistors, Fujitsu underwent a company restructuring after the global financial crisis of 2008.
Workers first gutted then began retrofitting a defunct transistor factory in Aizuwakamatsu with M2M sensors, effectively transforming it to a high-tech hydroponic smart-farm. At present, this futuristic agriponics marvel grows only lettuce, lots of lettuce.
Shipping more than 3,000 heads of “better than organic” lettuce every day to meet increasing demand, this sensor-monitored farm of the future is the poster child for an IoT system.
Healthier Than Organic?
As a former semiconductor manufacturing facility, the plant boasts sophisticated and extensive filtration systems, keeping it free from even the slightest contamination. Food contamination is a serious concern in Japan after the tragic nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima in 2011.
To maintain this germ-free environment, all workers within the facility are required to wear sterilized white body suits and don filtration masks at all times.
Kohji Nomaki, the director of planning for Fujitsu’s Advanced Agricultural Division, states in a report that, “The facility retained all that was needed to seal it off from bacteria and dust. Semiconductor factories are specially outfitted with filtration devices to create a clean room environment, because just one piece of dust on a semiconductor will make it unusable.”
Considering it takes a month and a half or longer for a head of lettuce to mature using conventional farming methods, thousands of heads per day is beyond impressive when coupled with the knowledge they are grown in a mere 6,500 square-foot facility.
The food is harvested fresh daily without the need for fossil fuels in transport, labor costs, or damage to the lettuce.
Inside the Plant
Inside the plant, long racks of lettuce trays stacked seven-high per section are continually bathing the lettuce in sterilizing, ultraviolet light while a hundred sensors monitor every aspect of the facilities’ environment from C02 levels to humidity, temperature, and even the pH level of the soil.
In addition, thousands of tiny sensors keep an electric eye on the lettuce and their streaming reports are constantly read by tablet-toting workers.
How Good is the Lettuce?
All lettuce is not created equal. This extraordinary hydro-farm’s lettuce is fresher than store-bought, cleaner than organic (no rinsing necessary), and even tastier due to its lowered potassium levels. This purposely-engineered low potassium level is important for people with kidney problems or those undergoing dialysis.
Generally, these people are unable to eat salad, as their compromised kidneys are unable to process high potassium levels. This lettuce allows them to enjoy a fresh salad without the worry of potential side effects.
Another perk: Even kids like it, claiming the taste is less bitter.
Throw in all those benefits and a shelf-life of more than two weeks and one can understand why people are lining up to happily pay three times the price of what a traditional head of lettuce costs.
With IoT technology expanding and its applications seemingly limitless, the future is already here. What is now known as the Internet of Things may one day rightly be called IoE, the Internet of Everything.