IoT and the World of Urban Farming

In our last blog, we explored Agritech; what it is and what kind of technology it involves.  Expanding on that subject, this time we are delving into the world of urban farming.  

A little bit of background..

By 2050, the UN estimates 10 billion people will inhabit our cities.  Already, many city dwellers have a diet much higher in animal based and processed foods, especially those living in densely populated lower income areas.  It is not uncommon for people living in these environments to have little knowledge of the food chain; where their food originates, the quality of it, the nutritional value, the environmental impact.  Add to this the ever growing size of our global population, regardless of location, the strain on agriculture to provide sufficient food for us all is increasing all the time. There is a drive to change this pattern, though, and provide a possible solution: urban farming! 

What is it?

Quite simply, urban farming refers to the growing of food/produce in a city or heavily populated area.  It is not to be confused with community gardening, or individuals living off/supplementing their diet with produce grown in their garden.  The key difference is in the intention.  To be considered urban farming, the produce must be grown with commerce in mind.  However, to become an urban farmer, you do not need to be a large corporation or the owner of vast amounts of land.  The reality is quite the opposite, and by employing techniques such as vertical farming, considerably less land and fewer resources are required.  For those living in an urban environment, this is a fantastic way to claw back control over diet and consumption.  Knowing where food has come from, how it was grown, easy access to seasonal foods (or foods which aren’t seasonal but have been grown locally in a safe and responsible manner), reduced food miles, supporting local/independent business...  These are compelling reasons to champion this new avenue.  

Where might you see it in action, and what techniques are involved?

Whilst the industry is in its infancy, interest in the idea is continuously growing.  Some aspects of urban agriculture will be obvious, you may have already seen some in action, think rooftop gardens/growing spaces or ‘living walls’.   Some are a little more discrete such as repurposed shipping containers. Others are a fantastic use of spaces which are otherwise unused, brownfield sites, ex-landfill, unused commercial land, or, with permission, park land.  Regardless of the location, urban farming tends to be based around produce in the main.  The farming of animals is heavily regulated and generally restricted to land outside of urban spaces.  Some of these farms are set up with education in mind, be it for children or adults or even to support re-entry programs.  Often sites are chosen to help improve the quality of life for local inhabitants, providing opportunities and access to healthy, fresh foods.

When reading about urban farming, there are a few methods and terms you’ll come across which might leave you thinking, “just what does that mean then?”.  To help make things a little clearer, we’ve done the hard work!

Vertical Farming:

This is one you will hear a lot, and the word vertical does give a hint; vertical farming is the growing of crops in vertically stacked layers.  It takes up far less space and can be done without the use of soil.

Hydroponics:

The growing of plants, most often crops, without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in aqueous solvent.  The roots of the plants are exposed to the liquid.  Whilst the plants are not placed in soil, they may be supported by gravel, perlite or other materials.  This method uses considerably less water than traditionally required.  

Aquaponics:

This is really the amalgamation of two elements; aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics.  The water from aquatic creatures is fed to plants.  This water is incredibly nutrient rich, benefiting the growth of the plants, and providing a use for what would otherwise be discarded.  

Aeroponics:

This method involves growing plants in the air or in a mist environment with no soil.  In fact, no growing medium is used at all.  The plants are suspended in a closed or partially closed environment and the roots are sprayed with nutrient rich water.

Correlations..

These ways of growing crops are fairly similar.  Whichever method is used, it is clear that crops can be grown pretty much anywhere, using far less space and water.

A brave new world - urban agriculture and tech!

There are too many exciting and innovative organisations forging a path in this field, to mention them all, but to give you an idea of the type of farming being done and how technology supports it, here are a few of our favourites:

Agricool 

A very cool (quite literally!) Paris based startup who grow strawberries in shipping containers (or cooltainers as they call them) across urban areas.  They retrofit old containers with LED lights and an aeroponics system.  Using a software system they created themselves, they are able to fully control the environment in which the plants grow, mimicking day-night cycles with perfect levels of humidity, co2 and temperature.  The LEDs replicate summer light.  Everything is powered by clean energy and 90% less water is used than traditional growing methods.  Cellular connectivity is the perfect partner for this type of operation, allowing for the constant monitoring of precious crops! 

BitGrange

This one has an educational focus; a device which uses hydroponics and an IoT based system to grow plants with very little energy and resources.  Founder Alfredo Costilla-Reyes wanted to create a device which brings together two of his passions, agriculture and technology, whilst also offering the chance to educate.  His software tracks the environment in which the plants grow and notifies the growers of any needs via an app. 

Growing Underground

The name gives it away! Based in London, under the streets of Clapham in a previously unused WW2 air raid shelter,  you’ll find an urban farm growing salad leaves which boast 90 times more nutrients than standard supermarket fare, pesticide free, carbon neutral and grown using 100% renewable energy.  Like other urban farming initiatives, they use hydroponics and LED technology to create perfect growing conditions.  In the case of Growing Underground, the team uses sensors that measure up to 89 variables transmitting to 8 Raspberry Pi loggers based in the tunnels.  The data is sent to an online horticultral data platform.  Another perfect example of agriculture and technology in harmony!

Is agritech your area of interest? Are you looking for a cellular LPWA connectivity solution for your IoT application? The availability of internet access in remote locations will be an essential requirement for the development of the IoT in agriculture. We offer extensive Low Power Wide Area connectivity solutions, giving our customers the freedom to test and deploy their low-data, high-density agritech applications remotely. Why not get in touch, visit web.arkessa.com/agritech 

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