Using industrial automation to monitor vertical farms

To learn more about the latest technologies being used in the agricultural industry, I virtually attended the second annual AgTech Innovation Summit held in February in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

The event was hosted by AeroFarms, an indoor vertical farm company based in Newark, New Jersey that has a research and development facility. It has another research and development complex in Abu Dhabi and a commercial farm in Danville, Virginia.

Vertical farms use advanced technology to optimize crop growth regardless of external conditions. Plants are stacked in vertical layers to maximize space utilization.

Soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics are the foundation of indoor farming. Plants are grown in nutrient-rich solutions.

The systems reduce water consumption and minimize the need for pesticides and herbicides. By providing plants with the precise amount of water, nutrients and light, indoor farming creates an ideal environment for their growth. The produce often grows faster than on a traditional farm.

New systems, including LED grow lights, offer specific wavelengths that promote photosynthesis and optimize plant growth. They allow farmers to tailor the light spectrum to different plant species, growth stages and desired characteristics.

State-of-the-art automation systems now monitor and control environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels and nutrient supply, ensuring optimal conditions that minimize waste.

The use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms now enables the analysis of large amounts of data collected by sensors to enable predictive analytics. Farmers can make more informed decisions about managing their crops, optimizing resource use and predicting yields.

“You need advanced automation technology to be able to monitor the entire operation, and that is not possible with humans alone.” –Thierry E. Klein

I was surprised that Nokia Bell Labs was one of the speakers at the summit. The industrial research laboratory, best known for its work in telecommunications, researches and develops advanced technologies for industrial automation and digitalization, including autonomous sensing and monitoring systems for industry.

Thierry E. Klein, president of Nokia Bell Labs Solutions Research, says vertical farming is one area that can benefit from this technology. The senior IEEE member explained that Nokia entered into a collaboration agreement with AeroFarms in 2020 and developed and installed monitoring systems at the Newark facility.

The Institute interviewed Klein to learn more about the project.

An industrial automation problem

AeroFarm and Nokia discussed building a system to monitor a vertical farm that grows leafy greens such as arugula, bok choy and kale. A typical plant can produce more than 1 million kilograms of leafy greens annually. A 13,000-square-foot facility like AeroFarms’ in Danville is so large that workers can’t physically inspect all of the equipment.

“Since the growth cycle is much shorter when growing indoors than when growing outdoors, it is very important to know what is going on at all times and not miss anything,” says Klein. “If you don’t recognize something, you’re missing a big opportunity. You may be at the end of your growth cycle and unable to take corrective action on production yield or quality or quantity of products.”

After Nokia Bell Labs evaluated the farm to see how it could help, Klein concluded that “there is an opportunity for industrial automation,” he says. “You need advanced automation technology to be able to monitor the entire operation, and that is not possible with humans alone.”

One of the important metrics AeroFarms scientists needed, Klein said, was real-time data on when plants’ leaves begin to overlap, which is called “canopy closure.” Knowing how many days in the growth cycle the leaves remain before the canopy closes is an important metric. Scientists also need to know the color, curvature and number of leaves – this helps them predict yield. In addition, farmers look for bare spots in the vegetation – which could be caused by poor nutrient flow or seed quantity.

Plant health analysis by workers can be subjective. An employee might look at a plant one day and see that it is healthy, while another might look at it the next day and say that it isn’t, Klein says. AeroFarms wanted to remove the subjective element and standardize the process.

“We felt we could develop analytical models to give them these insights,” says Klein. “Of course we are not breeders, so it was important for us to find out what they were looking for.”

He says the project was an analytics problem about gathering information and data, understanding it, gaining insights, and then making intelligent decisions – and doing it at a large enough scale was to handle the entire operation.

Drone and streaming video analytics

Nokia Bell Labs’ end-to-end solution includes autonomous drones that connect to a wireless network, as well as location technology, video streaming, computer vision and an analytics program. All data about the plants is displayed on a dashboard so growers can monitor what is going on.

“AeroFarms recognized the value of our solution from an operational perspective,” says Klein. “You can optimize your production and receive feedback in real time.”

AeroFarms uses sensor technologies and data science, as well as computer vision and AI, to test and bring new products to market.

The collaboration between AeroFarms and Nokia Bell Labs is a testament to the power of technology and innovation in advancing the field of indoor farming. By using state-of-the-art solutions and expertise, they pave the way for more sustainable and efficient agriculture. With their shared vision and commitment to excellence, the two are shaping the industry and driving the adoption of indoor farming practices worldwide.

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