Connected greenhouses: how the Internet of things can feed the planet

According to different experiments carried out across the world, the Internet of things could help us to face up to the two major challenges of smarter agriculture: to increase yields whilst seamlessly integrating agricultural production into natural systems.

To grow 1,000 tons of cucumbers and tomatoes in Siberia: that is the challenge won by a Japanese company thanks to its connected greenhouses.

In order to feed the 9 billion people who will live on the planet by 2050, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) estimates that global food production will need to be increased by 60%. Bearing in mind that agriculture is already responsible for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, how will we feed an increased population without compromising biodiversity?

A wealth of sensors

With 10 billion dollars invested in agricultural digital innovations, or “AgTechs”, in 2017 (compared to only 185 million in 2008), after industry, agriculture is the second highest sector seeking connected objects. This is easily understandable: as they enable the tracking of crops in real time, sensors meet the needs of precision agriculture. Driven by the development of wireless communications, they are connected to low-speed M2M (machine-to-machine) networks, thanks to protocols that are simpler, more energy efficient, and cheaper than Bluetooth, such as LoRa, an open source technology based on long range radio waves deployed and used notably by Orange, or LTE-M, an evolution of 4G technology. When combined with applications that are often available for smartphones, the sensors become true strategic guidance aids for crops. However, although fields are seeing the arrival of connected weather stations and robotic cultivators guided by GPS, it is in the confined spaces of greenhouses that IoT has the greatest potential by facilitating control over everything, from air humidity to temperature.

Pushing back the climate’s boundaries

To grow 1,000 tons of cucumbers and tomatoes in Siberia: that is the challenge won by Japanese company JGC Evergreen thanks to its connected greenhouses. One hundred kilometres away from the Arctic ocean, in the Inuvik region of Canada, hi-tech greenhouses also represent a real hope to improve the food self-sufficiency of an entire community. In these cold and remote lands where the importation of agricultural goods is very expensive, the Modular Farm company is developing modules made up of 240 vertical towers that can support the growth of 3,800 plants under LED lights. The technique used is hydroponics, a method of culture where plants grow on a substrate irrigated with a solution that provides them with mineral salts and essential nutrients. A heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system maintains the temperature, and the steel walls insulate the greenhouse so well that the heat produced by the LEDs and the dehumidifier often suffice to heat it. A wireless monitoring system controls all of the meaningful parameters, from air humidity to the nutrient composition of the solutions in which the plants’ roots are immersed. The company monitors these parameters from its offices in Toronto and contacts its customers if there is a problem.

For these biometrics pioneers, the challenge now is to increase the number of parameters that the greenhouses’ sensors can monitor, so as to act upon the plants’ nutritional quality for example. At McGill University in Montreal, bioresource engineers are thus studying the optimum length of light waves to send to the plants in order to boost their growth – with red light, for example, being known to boost photosynthesis. For the same amount of energy spent on lighting, the Arctic greenhouses could thus produce more food. And then what? Sensors represent such an issue for optimum crop management that research is turning towards actually putting biomarkers within living organisms – like these plants, designed to produce a fluorescent protein when the plant is exposed to stressful temperatures.

Food self-sufficiency for all?

If connected greenhouses can feed populations in regions with extreme climates, they also herald food self-sufficiency for French families. Detected and supported by Orange, the greenhouse developed by startup myfood is based on the principles of permaculture and aquaponics: in the tanks, in which the plants’ roots are immersed, fish filter the water and their waste provides the nutrients necessary for the plants’ growth. In this greenhouse, that is energy self-sufficient thanks to solar panels, sensors are everywhere: some 4 million measurement points connect to Orange’s LoRa network to send these data on air temperature or water acidity to a server. Here the data is analysed by an artificial intelligence before being sent on to the gardener in the shape of recommendations on an application centralising all of the control and follow-up parameters, from greenhouse ventilation to the plantation maintenance schedule.

For a connected greenhouse combining permaculture and aquaponics techniques, selling at € 8,000 including delivery and installation, with myfood Orange thus promises up to 400kg of organic vegetables, of high nutrient content, and 50kg of fish per year: enough to feed a family of four.

Fitting in to natural systems

The connected greenhouse thus provides a picture of the future, in which humans would go beyond the climate’s boundaries and the limits of the living to meet their food needs. For such purposes, AgTechs are not necessarily synonymous with an agriculture that is soilless and disconnected from nature: in order to make these a part of a paradigm of conciliation with natural systems, research can count on biomimicry.

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) in the United States is an example of this. Fitted with solar panels enabling it to be energy self-sufficient and even to feed some power back into the grid, this building also uses water in a closed circuit: pumped from the ground, the water is used for the occupants’ toilets, sinks, and showers then is sent into the greenhouse to be filtered by the algae, bacteria, and fungi, and to water the vegetable garden… before being sent back into the local aquifer. Thus, the building feeds its occupants and integrates its own wastewater treatment facility within its foundations. No chemicals are used to treat the water; the majority of the flow is powered by gravity and the rest by solar energy. By improving environmental conditions, the building is no longer a cumbersome object, but becomes a natural object that fits in to natural systems.

It is now up to IoT technologies to fall within this paradigm of bio-inspired design for the greenhouses of the future.

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