Vertical farming is a quick growing industry that offers a sustainable solution to many challenges in agriculture today. But if you’ve taken an interest in vertical farming and want to learn more about how it works, you’ve probably noticed that the rise of automation has had a tremendous impact on the progress of vertical farming.
Vertical farming automation is contributing to sustainable improvements in this labor-intensive industry. This includes planting seeds, transferring seedlings, adjusting watering/lighting/fertilizing, monitoring crop growth and health, and cleaning and reloading farming beds.
Many people predict that vertical farming will provide a comprehensive solution to the food shortage crisis we could soon face worldwide. So, if you want to understand more about vertical farming and, more specifically, how automation technologies will make your vertical farming venture more sustainable, this article will provide you with all of the details you need to know.
Can You Automate Farming?
Conceptually, vertical farming has been proposed as a resource-efficient alternative to traditional agriculture since the late 90s. It offers a sustainable solution to growing crops year-round in a controlled environment where weather patterns and pests, for example, are eliminated from the factors that determine a crop’s yield.
In a TED Talk on vertical farming, Stuart Oda discusses how vertical farming can provide enough food to feed the whole world as we run out of arable land and the global population grows beyond 9 billion in the next few decades.
However, as Oda mentions, vertical farming has not been developed into a sustainable practice due to the requirement for intensive labor to keep crops healthy throughout the year in a controlled environment. Furthermore, the declaration of bankruptcy from the Swedish vertical farming firm, Plantagon in 2019 exemplified how difficult it is to develop the technology for industrial-scale food production in urban areas.
However, as the Chief Innovation Officer and co-founder of Plantagon’s successor, Swegreen, Sephehr Mousavi explains, the rise of automation in IoT, AI, and robotics have made vertical farming automation far more sustainable by carrying out tasks allowing farmers to monitor their vertical farms 24/7.
Automation, therefore, has become a necessity for vertical farms, making it a dynamic, sustainable solution that can produce enough food for everyone in any environment, with far fewer food sustainability risks while using fewer resources.
Vertical farms require constant monitoring, seed planting, and seedling transplants, and the environmental conditions need to be constantly adjusted to fulfill the nutritional needs of the crops.
We can achieve this through vertical farming automation systems, advanced robotics, and vision systems that can monitor the health of the plants being grown. In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, emerging technologies can fulfil all of these requirements.
Sustainable And Flexible Vertical Farming Automation
The first forms of industrial machinery created hundreds of years ago were directed at the agriculture industry and brought about the farming practices as we know them today. This includes irrigation systems, tractors, and other prevalent technologies we’ve all been familiar with. And these technologies have allowed us to farm with increasing scalability and profitability.
And now, thanks to vertical farming automation, it has become a $3bn industry, according to the vertical farming experts at Swisslog. Due to a ” logistics-market approach, ” it is now possible to grow more crops in a vertical farming operation”.
Automated solutions provide more dynamic systems that you can customize according to your strategy, growing process, space availability, and crop type. For every crop, from leafy greens to herbs and other small vegetables, it is possible to use shuttle systems to carry out tasks such as transporting shelving systems, while robotic arms can water, plant, germinate, and harvest crops.
The advent of IoT also makes it possible to monitor plant health and adjust water, lighting, and nutrients to maintain the crops’ health.
Using supply chain automation, vertical farming operations can lower the environmental impact of agriculture and provide a viable solution to one of the biggest problems that humanity has ever faced – providing enough food for everyone in various environmental challenges such as droughts.
According to The World Bank, agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals across the globe. The global population is predcited to surpass 10 billion by 2050, the agricultural output needs to increase by approximately 70%. Beyond this, we are running out of arable land due to environmental exploitation and climate change.
This means that global hunger could spiral out of control if we do not change our farming practices. By using emerging 4IR technologies, it is possible to achieve sustainable and flexible automation for vertical farming.
Is Vertical Farming Automation Part Of The Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Suppose you’d like a comprehensive guide to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and what the future world will look like. In that case, we highly recommend Vivek Wadwa and Alex Aalkever’s book, “The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future“. They give great insights into Artificial Intelligence, synthetic DNA, 3D printing, self-driving vehicles, and personalized genomics.
But where does vertical farming automation fit into this new era of life-changing technologies that will shape our civilization for the next few decades?
According to Sebastiaan Nijhuis and Iris Herrmann at Strategy + Business, 4IR will transform everyone involved in the agriculture industry, including commercial and subsistence farmers.
Essential 4IR technologies, including AI, blockchain, drones, and IoT, will fundamentally change how we plant, grow, and harvest our plants and raise our livestock.
When it comes to vertical farming automation, we will use an amalgamation of technologies.
Starting with robotics process automation (RPA), we have emerged software that will allow us to emulate countless human actions by deploying robotic hardware such as drones, robotic arms, and shuttle systems. This will take care of the tasks that could historically only be carried out by humanoids.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system that allows you to use physical devices like robots, cameras, and lighting systems connected to the Internet (or a cloud) to exchange and process data and curate intelligent solutions to tackle potential problems, meaning that they can efficiently produce healthy crops.
And with Artificial Intelligence (AI), the robots that conduct physical labor will be smart enough to know which decisions to take, such as increasing the room temperature of the spectrum of the LED lighting in vertical farms.
This means that a vertical farm can run and farm crops all day, producing thousands of crops, depending on the size of the operation.
What Does Vertical Farming Automation Look Like?
According to Petr Kirpeit at Indoor Farming Jobs, vertical farming produces food in a controlled environment using hydroponics, aquaponics, and automation. The plants are grown in vertical stacks, and each stack is granted its unique environment for all stages of growth. The agricultural methods are used to control light, air, and water conditions to replicate the natural environment in which said crops thrive.
But, vertical farming automation has an impact on labor. It requires less manual labor and more skilled workers such as engineers and scientists to run a vertical farming operation, making it less profitable. If you’re running your vertical farming operation, you will already know that this level of expertise is hard to come by. Therefore, there are a few tasks in vertical farming operations that you should consider automating.
Vertical farming automation yields several benefits in managing the systems more efficiently. It uses fewer resources, reducing the environmental impact of growing crops. It also reduces the risks of contaminating crops by handling them more hygienically than a human being. These are the ways you can use vertical farming automation to run your operation more efficiently:
1. Planting seeds
The first task that automation can assist within your vertical farming operation is seed planting. This can be automated by using dispensing technology, which plants each individual seed into a seedbed accurately.
The seeds are then cultivated under a lighting system until they are large enough to be replanted as seedlings. They can be placed and moved through the vertical farm with pallets or conveyor belts or by using robots.
2. Transferring seedlings to farming beds
Once the seeds have grown and are ready to be transferred into a vertical farming bed, they can be transferred, with delicate handling, by using robotic technology.
This allows the seedlings to be transferred into hydroponic or aeroponic beds without being damaged so that they can thrive in their new growing environment without moving or harming other plants in the vertical farming bed.
3. Automated watering/lighting/fertilizing
As has been the case for centuries, watering and fertilizing crops is a labor-intensive task that requires a lot of attention. And, because artificial LED lights are used to replicate the sun’s rays that help plants grow in natural environments, this adds a layer to the factors that a farmer needs to monitor and the tasks that need to be executed.
The automated vertical farming system can adjust growing conditions such as ambient temperature, LED lighting spectrum and intensity, and fertilization throughout the year. This helps increase yields and produce healthy, nutritious crops, and reduces waste.
Furthermore, the crops can be moved around to different environments with mobile robots or conveyor belts according to the stages of their growth cycle.
4. Monitoring crop health & growth
The key factor in vertical farming is to ensure that the artificial environment that the crops are grown in is modulated to perfectly suit each plant’s needs. This means that you need to constantly monitor the crops so that when they show signs of poor health, the environment is adjusted to correct the issue.
By using vision systems with cameras and thermal detectors, for example, the automated system can monitor the crops more effectively than a human being can and process the data efficiently, regulating heating, cooling, and lighting accordingly.
As you likely already know, crop harvesting is the most labor-intensive task in agriculture. This work involves uprooting, picking, and reaping crops.
With the automated system, robots can pick the crops from the vertical farming beds and pick and slice them accordingly, efficiently moving the crops when they’re ready to be distributed to consumers.
6. Cleaning farming beds
Finally, automation can reduce the time it takes to prepare the growing environment for new crops through the re-use of vertical farming beds. Using similar moving robotics and conveyer belt systems as those used for the transportation of crops, an automated system can take used farming beds and clean them thoroughly to be used again without infecting the new crops.
Pallets and planters are sprayed with hot, high-pressure cleaning mechanisms that will allow them to be put back into circulation within minutes, which further increases the efficiency of the vertical farming process.
How Much Would It Cost To Set Up Vertical Farming Automation?
The final, burning question that you may be looking for an answer to is how much it costs to set up a fully automated vertical farming operation.
Research conducted by Cambridge Hok estimated that a level one (reliant on manual labor) vertical farm would cost roughly $1,300-$1,600 per square meter (10.7 square feet) for an operation of up to 500 square meters (5381.96 square feet) in total.
Meanwhile, a level two operation (500-2,000 square meters/5381.96-21527.82 square feet) will cost approximately $1,600-$2,300 per square meter.
A level three, fully automated vertical farming operation of between 2,000 and 10,000 square meters (21527.82-107639.1 square feet) will cost roughly $1,900-$2,600 per square meter.
These are only to be used as a guideline for the costs, but a 100,000 square foot operation with full automation can set you back about $2.6 million to put the costs into perspective.
But this would be an industrial-sized operation. Moreover, you would be spending most of your money on the machinery, which costs less and less as the technology becomes more established and is widely adopted.
Vertical farming, and vertical farming automation, in particular, are still in their infancy and use novel technologies that will cost significantly less in the future. But if you want to get in on the game today, you will need to make a significant capital investment.
So, if you’re looking to gain some expertise in vertical farming, you can increase your operation’s scalability, sustainability, and profitability through vertical farming automation. For every task, including planting seeds, transferring seedlings, monitoring plant health, adjusting environmental conditions, harvesting, and cleaning vertical farming beds, automation can provide an efficient way to conduct the agricultural process without any human labor.
This is made possible through various new technologies emerging in the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as AI, the Internet of Things, Robotics Process Automation, and drone/robotics technology. And by leveraging these various technologies, vertical farming automation can help us produce enough food to end global hunger while using significantly fewer natural resources like water and land.