The future of vertical farming: the intelligent ecosystem

Vertical farming is a hot topic within the farming industry at the moment.  It offers an opportunity to increase crop production while reducing food miles and increasing product quality. Vertical farming can be the only way to grow crops close to urban centers where space is at a premium, and this has advantages in both reducing transport costs and increasing the quality of the delivered product.

However, key questions remain about how to realize the potential of this opportunity, and lots of rapid change within the industry and the associated technologies. In particular, the costs associated with vertical farming are higher than those of traditional farming methods - and are likely to remain so for some time. Anyone getting into vertical farming needs to think carefully how to minimize the costs to maximize the return on investment.

Make or buy – is it worth it?

When considering the business case for a vertical farm, it is helpful to split the costs into three broad buckets:

  1. The development costs, if any, to create the necessary technologies.
  2. The capital investment costs needed to build the farm itself.
  3. The operating costs associated with running the farm.

Development costs are paid every time a new piece of technology is developed, but then can be amortized over every installation.  This money pays for the engineering time necessary to invent or tailor a technology to meet the specific needs of the project.  It is minimized if all the products used in the installation are available off-the-shelf, and can be paid in terms of internal engineering resource, or externally to a company like us.  Typically, the person who spends on development would expect to own any IP generated during that development.

Installation costs are paid once per installation, and includes buying the land and the building, installing the racking for the crops, and the hardware for the HVAC, irrigation and lighting.

Operating costs are paid every day the farm is running, and include human labor, water rates, fertilizer, seeds and other agricultural consumables, as well as the energy costs for lighting, heating, cooling and moving things around the farm.

At a small scale, farm costs are dominated by capital investments.  It doesn’t make sense to invest in development, because the payback time will be large. Clearly, you can’t choose to make, so you have to use what is already sold off the shelf.  However, larger farms quickly become dominated by operating costs, such as lighting, air and water management and labor. As the scale of the vertical farm installation increases, the operating costs dominate to such an extent that it becomes worthwhile to invest up-front in making the environmental management equipment more efficient in the long run.  It’s at this point that “make or buy?” becomes a real question, and it’s worth looking into the right technologies to invest in.

Which technologies to make?

There are three areas which we’ve been exploring where developing custom technologies may yield rewards:

  • Air management – what are the challenges unique to vertical farming, relevant as a wider range of crops enter the market with different temperature and humidity needs?
  • Sensing – how will existing technologies enable the closed loop control of a vertical farming system to feed into both automation and environmental response?
  • Manipulation – who do the specific manipulations and environment of vertical farming automation need something new from robotics?

Air management

Although the efficiency of vertical farming can initially be improved through transferable developments in lighting and automation from other market sectors, challenges unique to vertical farms will soon begin to become more relevant. The requirement for a Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system for an office block are very different to those of a vertical farm, and so-off-the-shelf lighting and HVAC systems will operate inefficiently when asked to meet the demands of a vertical farm. The future of vertical farming lies in system integration thinking and addressing the unique challenges posed by a wider range of crops by addressing the environmental challenges up front.  Off-the-shelf HVAC systems will be optimized to run cheapest in the conditions that humans prefer – 20-25°C and 30-60% humidity.  Plants need a wider temperature and humidity range, and also provide the specific problem that the lights in a vertical farm produce a lot of heat that needs to be removed.  Custom designing a HVAC system that is optimized for these conditions, while more expensive up front, will result in a lower overall cost.  Our white paper on vertical farming goes into more detail on this subject.

Sensing

The optimum conditions for each plant vary from plant to plant and throughout that plant’s lifecycle.  Not all plants in a vertical farm will be at the same stage at the same time – some of this variation comes from deliberate successional planting, but some is due to naturally occurring differences between plants.  In order to realize the maximum yield and quality benefits of vertical farming, sensing and responding to these differences is key.  Cambridge Consultants has been working on a variety of technologies that can address this, from Hyperspectral Imaging or detection of individual plants using AI.

Manipulation

Of course, sensing is only half of the problem.  Once you’ve determined the best conditions for a plant, you need to manipulate either the plant or its environment to bring it to those conditions. Many agricultural tasks that people find easy – assessing ripeness, finding fruit in canopies, harvesting only certain leaves – are still very difficult to automate in a cost effective way. The right sort of automation is not about replacing people with robots - there will always be some tasks that humans are better at -  instead it is about using automation as a force multiplier, to increase the productivity of the existing workers. Increasing automation within vertical farms can lead to higher density – but only if the layout of farms changes to match the capability of the automation. 

Conclusions

It’s clear that vertical farming is still a technology in its infancy. There is always a danger that emergent technologies never hit the ’critical mass’ that means mass adoption forces the cost of the technology down, leading to greater adoption and then even more economies of scale. However, the economic and social drivers for vertical farming are clear.

The key point is that while this technology is possible, it does not yet exist in off-the-shelf form. An investment is needed to design a more efficient, targeted system that reduces operating costs in the long term by creating an intelligent ecosystem. This will cost more in design work initially, but the potential benefits to the companies that are willing to make that jump, and make it first, are enormous.

Author
Chris Roberts

I'm a Senior Consultant working on a huge range of fields, from Wifi and microprocessors, to literal fields for precision agriculture. I enjoy working with innovative technology, solving hard problems and communicating complex technical ideas to anyone who'll listen.