What is the Key Technology Being Used in Today’s Vertical Farms?
The emergence of vertical farms as a key player in the food supply chain wouldn’t be possible without the wonders of modern technology working with the wonders of Mother Nature.
The field of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a blend of science, technology, and skill. To create indoor environments where plants thrive, growers use advanced horticultural equipment and software programs to mimic Mother Nature.
One of the standout features of vertical farms is their ability to produce more food per acre than traditional farms — while also consuming far fewer resources. To accomplish such incredible feats, vertical farms are integrated with a variety of cutting-edge technologies. Because of advanced tools like LED lighting and atmospheric sensors, vertical farms use space more efficiently than any type of food production in human history.
As vertical farming has grown increasingly popular, ag-tech companies continue to develop innovative systems to aid in efficient food production. To catch our readers up on the latest advancements in the CEA space, we put together this brief exploration into key vertical farming technology.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of Things (IoT) is an exciting platform that integrates various technologies with physical objects found in the world. As one of the leading developers of this new tech, Oracle puts it this way, “The Internet of Things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects — ‘things’ — that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the internet.”
As the CEA space learns more about the IoT capabilities, increasing numbers of vertical farms are implementing this technology. In fact, IoT is quickly becoming one of the most important technologies for precision indoor growing. By providing real-time data readings of critical factors like temperature, humidity, and pH levels, IoT helps farmers reduce waste while increasing yields.
Sensors embedded in vertical farms are the foundations of IoT networks. The more information gleaned by atmospheric sensors, the richer the data sets farmers have to inform future decisions.
Nutrient Dosing Systems
Nutrient dosing systems have become a critical tool for commercial hydroponic production. With dosing systems, sensors consistently monitor fertilizer levels in irrigation reservoirs and hydroponic systems. When certain nutrient thresholds are met — such as minimum nitrogen levels — the dosing system automatically releases the required fertilizers into the reservoir.
Beyond providing plants in hydroponic systems with all the macronutrients and micronutrients they need to thrive, dosing systems also monitor water quality. Sensors keep track of important metrics such as pH levels and add subsequent acids and bases to rectify imbalances.
Nutrient dosing systems in vertical farms alleviate much of the manual labor involved with tracking water quality and nutrient levels in hydroponic systems. Moreover, dosing systems allow for more precise feeding than could be accomplished manually.
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Drones & AI
Drone technology has near-endless applications in today’s society. Whether it be surveying land for potential developments, or helping boost security at a large property, drone technology is here to stay. In the latest development of this tech, vertical farms have begun using drones inside growth chambers to monitor plant health and prevent the spread of pathogens.
The vertical farming company AeroFarms recently partnered with Nokia Bell Labs to integrate drone technology with vertical farming processes. Excitingly, the drones from Nokia Bell Labs use sophisticated camera imagery and AI computing to monitor garden health.
According to the Nokia Bell Labs website, “The highly orchestrated ballet of drones, plants, and analytics is driven by one overriding factor: the need for AeroFarms to monitor the health of millions of individual plants, many of which are located 10 meters from the floor.” Once the drones reach such tight locations, they capture critical data on plant health with such granular metrics as “leaf size segmentation.”
Using AI to assess their findings, drones then report potential problems back to AeroFarm technicians.
Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
While light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been utilized since the early days of vertical farming, the technology has been very impactful. When compared to other technologies like metal halide and high pressure sodium lights, the most standout features of LEDs are their cool-running temperatures and low electricity consumption.
Because of how cool they run, LEDs actually make the practice of vertical farming possible in the first place. The most defining characteristic of vertical farms is the ability to stack a garden canopy upwards to use the additional vertical volume available in a room. Yet, each shelf in a vertical farm must have its own light source to simulate photosynthesis.
LEDs are the only lighting technology on the market today capable of putting off enough usable PAR light to stimulate plant growth, while also not putting off excessive heat in the tight confines of a vertical farm.
As LED technology continues to evolve, these lights are being used for a variety of phases of plant growth, from propagation to fruiting.
Vertical farming has the potential to revolutionize the global food supply chain. Whether it be growing fresh leafy greens in Chicago during the dead of winter, or greatly reducing the amount of water it takes to produce an acre of crops, the benefits of CEA methods are expansive. Yet, behind every successful vertical farm is an array of technologies keeping operations running and plants healthy.
Simply put, vertical farming would not be possible without the technological innovations of the 21st-century. Interestingly, and perhaps more than in any other industry, ag-tech companies are developing new systems modeled after processes found in the natural world. As vertical farming continues to progress, it will be interesting to see how technology continues to intermingle with biological systems. If everything goes right, these advances could help us solve some our most dire global issues with drought, pollution, hunger, and more.