As the global population grows and land becomes scarcer, vertical farming will hopefully provide part of the answer to how the world grows enough crops to feed everyone. Vertical Future’s Founder and CEO Jamie Burrows explains the role of the Internet of Things (IoT) in this.
Put simply, vertical farming involves growing crops indoors in vertically stacked layers in a controlled environment, using artificial lighting, without the use of soil, pesticides or other agri-chemicals.
“It depends on the design and height of each vertical farm, but for larger developments we generally say we can grow the same amount as an outdoor large-scale farm in about 1% of the space,” explains Jamie. “Our farms also use much less water (an increasingly scarce resource), compared to a traditional broadacre farm.”
Growing algorithms and IoT
IoT plays a key role in managing the conditions needed to grow different plants indoors – including humidity, temperature, watering frequency, pH, nutrient concentration, photoperiod, and lighting.
“A vertical farm is a collection of many technologies with different variables that need to be connected – not just within the farm but also to our home base and other farms across the globe. We provide our customers with specific ‘growing algorithms’ and the technological integration required to reach optimal efficiency, together with transparency, traceability, and oversight of what’s going on in their farm – at a granular level.”
Vertical Future’s farms are fully automated, from seed treatment through to harvest, and every stage requires IoT. The company’s in-house SaaS product – DIANA – monitors and tracks each plant throughout the growing process, as well as the humans and other variables that interact with the system overall.
Sharing data to boost yields
DIANA can identify and locate defective equipment, like an LED, pump, or solenoid, which helps long-term maintenance of the infrastructure, but Jamie says the benefits go far beyond that.
The data collected is shared across Vertical Future’s network of farms, with everyone benefiting from the broader data and yield improvements it can bring: “Anonymised data sharing means that our customers’ farms in Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and the UK can operate using similar growth algorithms, with each farm learning from the wider network. It’s only through the power of IoT and data that we can offer this model.”
Developing and deploying DIANA has certainly been “a learning experience,” for our team says Jamie. “Few had done anything like it when we began, so we’ve had to be agile, working closely with customers to figure out what they needed.”
Building a team with the right skills is also a challenge: “The engineers and software engineers we recruit, for example, have to understand that our systems are dealing with living things, which makes working with our Plant R&D team incredibly important,” says Jamie. “That’s a unique element for many of them to consider, compared to previous roles.”
“We also track data for the wider operational environment – things like health and safety, staff management and stock control – and we’re working on integrating with finance platforms so a farm can monitor its bottom line against critical variables.”
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