(5 min read)
Traditional food production is under pressure from climate change as well as dwindling water and land resources, as the world’s population continues to expand. But the news is not all bad. Technology already is providing tangible solutions to some of these challenges; especially with respect to horticulture and the overall future of crop production.
The challenge of a changing climate and increasing world population leads to the question: how can we ensure food production is reliable and of stable quality? How can food be produced in a controlled environment that is independent of fluctuating weather and temperature patterns?
Technology may be the answer to both questions. That doesn’t mean that I am a visionary; it just means I am a fan of technology who is excited about this changing industry. I have gained a lot of experience over the years with projects aimed at using technology for horticulture issues, and want to share a few of the things that excite me the most.
Using Technology to Automate in the Garden
Some of us are already using robots to vacuum the floors, clean windows or cut the grass. What if we could take that a step further, using robots to automatically seed, water, weed and harvest plants? How cool would that be? In fact, it is already happening, and it’s only one way in which technology can be used for gardening. A good example of this is the FarmBot, a raised-bed garden with a robotic tender. Although this technology is still in its infancy, it promises to deliver a level of efficiency in food production that we humans can never reach.
It was like looking through a window to the future when my colleagues and I first saw FarmBot. Seeing the way in which technology could make an individual gardener’s life easier, we asked ourselves: What could technology do to optimize food production beyond automated gardens?
There is tremendous potential to digitize the process. A networked, automated garden could allow individuals to plan and manage the plots remotely, when they are at work, or even on vacation. No need to ask someone to water the plants! Even better, gardens could be managed by groups rather than an individual.
Ensuring Consistent Quality of Crops
Taking a look at the big picture, just think what we can achieve with technology and how it could affect the way we produce food in the future. In addition to robots seeding, cultivating and harvesting plants, sensors can capture data used to set up closed-loop controls that govern the robot’s actions. As a result, we can achieve a level of reliability, replicability and quality control never before seen in food production.
Having a reliable and optimized system can provide planning security for both suppliers and customers. This is especially true for producers of medicinal herbs or plant-based pharmaceuticals, who depend on consistent quality.
Further insights can be derived from plant growth data collected in these controlled environments, using machine learning and big data management. These insights could be used to optimize soil conditions, light, plant spacing and other variables to speed up the production cycle or aid in producing more nutrient-rich food. This data can be used to shape algorithms and drive further optimization, setting the foundation for a company’s ultimate success.
Using Controlled Environments to Grow Food
Providing optimal light conditions for crops takes a lot more than going to the hardware store and hanging up some bulbs. Producers of LEDs will need to provide lighting at a specific wavelength that stimulates photosynthesis. In addition, high-tech sensors will need to mature in order to collect massive amounts of data about things like nutritional value and moisture in soil, plant growth and light quality. And what if these automated gardens – what are actually farms – could be located in metropolitan areas? Think about technologies that would allow us to grow plants not just on the ground, but vertically on a wall or on elevated platforms – also known as vertical or urban farming.
Small, vertical farms within cities could be used as a local complement to traditional farms located outside the cities. And by leveraging these new technologies and bringing them into cities, transportation and logistics costs could be reduced, as well as CO2 emissions. As we develop new ways and ideas about how to produce and transport food, this could also create a new digitized branch of the food industry.
Several companies located in Europe, Asia, and the United States have already found success with vertical farming business models and, because they are located in urban areas, their logistics costs are lower. Their use of technology and optimized growth conditions allows them to use up to 95% less water than traditional farms and, in some cases, produce zero agricultural runoff. They also use less land, since they are inside – and vertical.
Paving the Way with Other Supportive Technologies
There are many other ways that technology is paving the way for the future of agriculture. One way that comes to mind is drone technology, which is one of the most high-profile technological advancements for agriculture so far. One of the exciting projects we worked on last year involved the use of drones, remote sensing, and AI to help identify and eradicate a dangerous invasive plant species in Denmark, the Giant Hogweed.
Other companies, like Dendra, use similar drone technology to automate seed planting, dispersing seeds of native plants and trees and help restore ecosystems.
Both of these projects are good examples of how digital transformation is changing the way that farmers are planting and managing vegetation. This practice – using drones and other technology to manage a farm closely and effectively – already has its own name: precision farming.
We are just at the beginning. In addition to drones, robotics and controlled farming, I’m sure there will be even more technologies that will benefit all aspects of food production.
Designing the Future of Horticulture and Agriculture
As you can see, the future is already here. Drones are buzzing around out there, and urban farming is already taking place. itelligence is committed to finding even more ways to bring technology solutions to the crop and food production industry – like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data management. It’s a subject we’d love to discuss with you. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Discover More Technologies
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