The first prototypes of vertical farms occurred long before modern technology — Babylonians used hanging gardens, and the Aztecs suspended crops in shallow rivers and lakes.
Today, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology involving AI, IoT and ML allows using artificial lighting and preserving the right humidity level and temperature to grow plants independently of weather conditions and seasons.
So what is it about indoor vertical farming that makes it prevail over field-grown crops? Let’s discuss it in detail.
What is vertical farming?
Vertical farming is a process of growing crops in so-called stacks, where they are placed in rows on top of each other. Vertical farms are also usually indoor, located in buildings like smart warehouses that allow keeping the environment under control.
Hydroponics vs Aquaponics vs Aeroponics
Unlike conventional farming, which is soil-based, plants at vertical farms grow in one of the 3 cultivation types — hydroponics, aquaponics or aeroponics:
- hydroponics implies growing plants in a nutrient-rich water-based solution
- aquaponics features plant and fish growth in the same water using a filter system, where fish produce fertilizers for the crops
- aeroponics, in turn, is growing plants in a moist environment without being planted in soil or water
Vertical farming is a better alternative to the traditional way of growing plants horizontally in fields or greenhouses since they save space, produce all year round and use fewer resources. In the long run, vertical farming helps resolve global food shortages and save water.
Why use vertical farming?
There are lots of vertical farming benefits when compared to the traditional way of growing plants. These are increased and year-round crop production, water savings, preservation of arable areas, pesticide-free products, stable supply of food and ensured food health and safety.
Key benefits of vertical farming
- Increased crop production. Producing crops outdoors has limitations in terms of the area it takes, while indoor production allows for bigger capacity. In fact, 4 to 6 acres of outdoor production area equals an acre of indoor area. This drastic difference, along with the optimal farming bed distribution that indoor vertical farming provides, allows producing several times bigger volumes of crops.
- Year-round production of crops. Indoor farming systems are built to preserve particular environmental conditions at all times, regardless of the season. This leads to a steady and consistent crop production that is not affected by weather conditions or changes in the seasons, which means it’s possible to get fresh crops throughout the entire year.
- Water savings. Agriculture uses a lot of water for crop production — 70% of available pure water, which is already in shortage. But vertical farms use water circulation that allows reusing water for new crops, therefore getting the same amount of crops with significantly less water used.
- No loss of arable areas. Arable land is reducing with time because of pollution and the expansion of human dwelling areas, which leads to a reduction in areas that can be used for crop production. With indoor and vertical farming, the same territory can be used over and over to produce crops all year round and without affecting Earth’s soil health.
- No use of pesticides. Indoor farming uses a protected and controlled environment for crop production, which is achieved with lighting setups, climate control, and constant airflow. At the same time, conventional farming uses pesticides to control crop quality, which has a negative effect on soil health, food safety, and the ecosystem.
- Stable supply of food. Indoor farms can be located outside of cities and take up small buildings. This allows providing small towns with their source of crops that is located nearby and does not require complex supply chains. Eventually, local communities are provided with fresh food all year round regardless of any issues in logistics, like those the entire world faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Food health and safety. Greens are susceptible to pathogens that come from contaminated water, like from livestock located near the growing area. Then, transportation exposes the products to more chances of contamination throughout the supply chain and third-party distributors. Indoor farming, in turn, is performed in a controlled environment with a simple and clear supply chain since they are usually located close to the end consumers.
Vertical farming empowered by technology
So how does vertical farming work? To create and preserve a favorable environment for the plants, control systems are used in agribusinesses. These include sensors that measure and adjust the needed level of humidity, light intensity, temperature, and airflow consistency to maintain a steady environment.
Indoor farming climate control
To keep the production stable at all times, the environment in which the crops grow has to preserve particular conditions, like a certain temperature and level of humidity. Because of the changes in weather outside of the farm, it’s crucial to make sure that these don’t affect the farming system environment.
That’s when humidity and temperature control systems come to the rescue. The temperature sensor tracks the temperature of the air inside if it’s an aeroponics system or the water if it’s a hydro- or aquaponics one and regulates it to achieve the needed level. At the same time, the dehumidifier controls the level of humidity in the farming system using the air outside.
Smart lighting for indoor farms
For plant growth on a traditional farming site, sunlight is the essential element, which leads the crops to depend on the changes in weather and seasons. Indoor farms, in turn, are equipped with smart lighting systems, where LED lamps go on and off automatically according to growing cycles. Lighting sensors also measure the intensity of the light when it is on, and the control system adjusts it to the needed level with no human interaction.
Indoor farms need enough air volume to meet the dehumidification and cooling needs of the plants. One of the ways to keep the needed conditions in the environment of indoor farming is by air conditioning or a heat pump (so-called HVAC systems). Both allow for airflow to balance the indoor temperature when it gets heated by pulling colder air from the outside. Proper ventilation also helps equally distribute heat/cooling and humidity between all areas to keep a homogenous environment across the entire farming area.
Besides temperature control, airflow is crucial for proper CO2 distribution to ensure photosynthesis and healthy plant growth. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it falls to the bottom of the room, which makes it difficult to supply the upper parts of an indoor vertical farm. That’s why indoor farms need to be equipped with technology like HVAC systems that get continuous air circulation.
Building management system (BMS)
A building management system at an indoor farming facility provides access to monitoring and control of all electrical equipment installed and operating at the site, including climate control, lighting and air control sensors. All electronics operating at the farm are automated and connected to the BMS — they adjust parameters automatically to preserve a particular level of temperature, airflow, lighting and other things.
A BMS is operated by a computer, hence it collects all parameters in one place, which makes it extremely easy to monitor the performance of the entire system through software. In fact, you don’t even have to be present at the site to take control of all the technology.
How vertical farming technology works
Now that we’ve answered the question of what is vertical farming, let’s discuss how modern solutions bring it to the next level. Since the system of indoor vertical farming operated on data from sensors and other technologies, it can be captured and analyzed to boost improve current production and get recommendations for future crop growing cycles.
Indoor farming data collection
All the control systems capture information on temperature and the levels of humidity, CO2 and lighting in the facility — this is IoT in action. The sensors measure these metrics and transmit this data to software, which further allows working with it to ensure that all the levels are correct and the entire system performs according to set criteria.
Besides the sensors, recognition-based technology and image processing software can also be applied to indoor farming. These imply collecting images of the plants or the farming system they grow in to get information on their health throughout the growing process and monitor it to make changes if needed.
Indoor farming data visualization
From the data collected with all the sensors, the values received are then transferred to software. At this stage, the data is compared with the values that are normal for healthy plant growth. If the two do not align, then the actual values need to be changed.
Overall, data visualization allows for clear and detailed real-time monitoring and adjusting of the system to the desired indicators, as well as tracking patterns in system performance and farm life for further analysis.
AI and ML analytics for growth recommendations
AI and ML can be used at every stage of the growing process to eventually get production of high quality. The application of IoT technologies like sensors for continuous monitoring and data collection from indoor and vertical farms is called connected farming, which is a growing approach in agriculture. Here’s how connected farming looks in practice.
- Seed breeding. AI analyses data that can help identify the best crops for a particular farming environment. In other words, it’s possible to find plants that are the most suitable for growing on an indoor farm and would be the least prone to diseases.
- Soil and crop health. AI monitors plants and the soil to spot any problems in their state in case such occur. Then, based on previous data, AI learns to predict diseases, hence making it possible to take measures to prevent their occurrence, like weeding the infected parts. While rare in indoor farming, pest detection is another useful application of AI via comparing older images to current ones to notify farmers on their smartphones in case of any insects.
- Feeding patterns. With the use of AI, it is possible to identify the most effective irrigation pattern to provide maximum growth. This includes both a schedule for nutrient application and their dosage for a given crop volume.
- Harvesting. AI allows predicting when the plants will be able for harvesting and monitoring them via images to identify whether the crops are ready to be harvested, hence being able to plan the next planting accordingly.
- Price forecasting. AI can quickly analyze the market and, along with predictive analytics, provide insights on the value of crops after harvesting or the costs of the seeds for the next planting cycle. This, in turn, allows for making better, cost-effective decisions on farming.
Indoor farm automation
Automation in indoor and vertical farming provides significant benefits to the industry by solving significant issues, like labor shortage, long task completion, and low accuracy because of human error. Eventually, robotics and automation fill in the labor gap, speed up task completion and perform tasks with high accuracy.
- No labor shortage. Automation and robotics can work 24/7 and therefore, do more work than humans. This leads to their huge benefit because there’s no need to hire more people to cover the workload for tasks like planting seeds, watering and feeding them, harvesting, and other jobs at different stages of the growing process.
- Faster task completion.Along with being able to work longer, machinery can work faster than humans. So automation in indoor farming helps speed up processes that are done manually by several times, this way receiving a massive increase in production and hence, potential revenue.
- High accuracy.Drones, robots, and other technologies allow minimizing the chance of human error and provide high-quality, healthy foods to the consumer. These help with various tasks, from crop health detection via image processing to damage-free harvesting — all accurate and effective, with no human interaction.
Indoor farming can be automated at every stage of the process, from planting to harvesting and cleaning the beds for the next planting cycle. Let’s discuss how every step of growing plants indoors is automated.
- Seed planting. Before transferring the seeds to aeroponics, hydroponics, or aquaponics system, they need to be cultivated. This is when machinery can be used to plant the seeds into growing mediums to cultivate the seeds using lighting and, in this way, prepare them for further planting.
- Seedling transplantation. After cultivation, seeds need to be transferred to the farming system, which can look like vertical beds in an indoor vertical farm. When they get too large in their cultivating container, machinery or robotics can be used to move the seedlings in the farming beds.
- Automation of growing environment. Watering, feeding, lighting, humidity level, and temperature — all these processes and factors are automatically monitored via sensors. The data is automatically collected and analyzed so that the system can adjust the metrics to ensure that the right conditions for healthy plant growth are preserved at all times of the day, all year round. Feeding systems is another area of farming automation. Consistent and timely nutrient distribution and watering are crucial for plant health. Smart spraying technology allows ensuring that the crops are fed and watered at all times with no need for human supervision.
- Image capturing for growth monitoring. The image capturing and recognition technology allow for tracking the growth of the plants to make sure they are healthy and grow according to the schedule. High-resolution images are captured and transferred to the staff in real-time — they can then be compared to those taken earlier. In case any issues are found, the personnel can get notified and react in time.
- Automated harvesting. When the data suggests that the crops are ready to be harvested, conveyor machines and robotics can be used for quick and careful plant picking. Besides, the machinery can cut off the spoiled parts in case there are any so that the collected batch is fresh and of good quality for further distribution.
- Farming beds cleaning. For the production to be consistent, new seeds need to be planted as soon as the previous batch is harvested. Therefore, indoor and vertical farming systems and beds need to be prepared so that the new seedlings can be transferred as soon as possible, which means they need to be cleaned quickly. High-powered cleaning technology is a must in this case to speed the process via automation. Pressure washers, for example, can clean the area when the beds are free from plants fast and effectively.
Why is vertical farming important for our future food system?
More and more people are moving from villages to cities. This means that fewer households are feeding themselves with home-grown crops, hence leading the demand for food to increase. Vertical farming can cope with this demand and provide enough food supply for the growing population.
Then, growing crops indoors takes up to 95% less water than the same field-grown harvest batch — it helps reduce the water shortage while providing more crops.
The production of organic crops is also going to increase with the growth of vertical farming since indoor-grown plants are not treated with pesticides. Besides, vertical farming is environmentally friendly and does not cause any harm to flora and fauna in the nearby areas, just like it is a safe workplace for people.
With this being said, vertical farming provides huge benefits to the food produced, the agriculture industry overall and the entire global food system.