VERTICAL FARMING BRINGS FRESH PRODUCE CLOSER TO CITIES USING FEWER PESTICIDES AND LAND RESOURCES. HERE’S HOW FACTORY AUTOMATION MAKES IN POSSIBLE.
For years, vertical farming has been offered as a tantalizing solution to many modern needs, including demand from consumers to have food produced closer to home, more efficient land use, and the elimination of pesticides. While many challenges have faced vertical farms over the years—including high startup costs and intense resource needs—recent technological breakthroughs have begun to make vertical farming a more viable, sustainable option.
Factory automation has made many of these advances possible. By using automated systems, advanced robotics, and high-tech vision systems, vertical farm companies can increase their crop yield at a lower cost and with higher quality results.
Eagle has been involved in several vertical farming projects that have proven the value of automated systems in vertical farming, and our experience with Industry 4.0 technology positions us to work with industry pioneers as they experiment with more innovative ways to advance agricultural technology. Here are seven use cases of factory automation that demonstrate the key role technology plays in the future of farming.
1. Planting seeds.
Vertical farming begins with seeds being planted into starter growing mediums that are then cultivated under a lighting system until they are large enough for transplanting. Planting seed can be automated through the use of dispensing technology, which can accurately place individual seeds in a seed bed.
The starter mediums themselves can be oriented and transported through the vertical farm via pallet or conveyor belt as the application requires. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted, they can even be lifted and carried through the factory using mobile robots, without the need for a conveyor system.
2. Transferring seedlings into vertical farming beds.
Once the seedlings have grown to a certain size, they must be transferred to the farming bed. These can be vertical grow media or stacked beds. Either way, transferring seedlings requires delicate handling and careful placement to avoid damaging the young plant.
We partner with several robotic manufacturers, including our strategic partner Fanuc, to deploy advanced robotics with pick-and-place capabilities to lift, orient, and deposit seedlings into their new growing environment, whether that be an aeroponic bed or a hydroponic bed. Our technology is sensitive enough to ensure the plants are moved without being harmed.
3. Automated watering, lighting, and fertilizing.
One of the key advantages of vertical farms is their ability to carefully monitor and adjust growing conditions for plants year-round. In a controlled environment, the vertical farming system can adjust the ambient temperature, the spectrum and intensity of the light, and the watering and fertilizing of crops based on what is ideal for each plant. These routine care tasks can be easily handled through automated systems using dispensing technology.
“Automation in agriculture solves a large portion of the labor constraints, is more environmentally conscious with the limited use of water with no pesticides and can offer year round production.” -Darren Priebe, Eagle Sr. Business Development Manager
Similarly, timed conveyor belts are used to move plants evenly through growth cycles. While some vertical farming systems use static beds, others are designed to move plants from station to station as they grow to adjust conditions to a plant’s growing cycle. These systems can be programmed so that plants loaded onto a pallet at one end have matured into crops ready to be harvested by the time they exit. Conveyor systems can also be designed to move suspended, vertical pallets.
4. Vision systems to monitor crop growth and health.
Not only do climate-controlled environments carefully regulate heating, cooling, and lighting for crops, they also eliminate the need for pesticides. However, that doesn’t mean plants are immune from sickness. Despite the controlled climate, plants still require an inspection to ensure peak quality.
Fortunately, high-tech visioning technology can use cameras to monitor plant growth and health. If a crop begins to show signs of poor health, the monitoring system can alert farmhands to the areas that require personal inspection. Eagle’s Vision system integration using Cognex, Keyence, and others can also be used to determine when a pallet is ready to move on to the next growth stage, or when it is ready for harvest.
5. Automated harvesting.
Crop harvesting has traditionally been a laborious enterprise. In fact, many of the first farm machines put into production were designed to reduce the work involved in picking, reaping, and uprooting crops. There’s no reason why automated technologies can’t perform the same functions in a vertical farm.
The same advanced robotic technology that can transfer seedlings into farming beds can also be used to pick crops from farming beds or vertical planters and place them on a pallet. In other applications, pallets can be moved through a conveyor system where crops are sliced from the planter or crop bed. We have palletizing solutions that meet customer demands for safe transferring.
6. Cleaning and reloading farming beds for re-use.
In a traditional farm, it can take anywhere from several days to several weeks to prepare the ground for planting between harvests. The soil must be plowed and fertilized before seeds can be planted again. This significantly decreases the number of crops that can be produced in a growing season.
In a vertical farm, a new crop of plants can be planted as soon as the pallets from the old crop have been harvested and cleaned. This can be done through high-powered cleaning equipment that can spray down pallets and planters with high temperature, high-pressure cleaning solutions, making them ready for use within minutes.
Industry 4.0 technology can help vertical farmers control and monitor crops.
Many of the most modern implementations of vertical farming are only made possible by the advent of Industry 4.0 technology. These technologies lower the cost of manufacturing farming components, provide the data necessary to develop fine-tuned solutions, and allow for IIoT-connected farming stations that enable close monitoring and feedback of growing conditions.
Our experience with Industry 4.0 technology positions us to provide industry-leading solutions that will help vertical farmers remain competitive in an exciting new branch of the agriculture industry. If you would like to learn more about our automation technologies, contact us. We would be happy to speak with you about a solution to match your requirements.
Brandon Fuller, Eagle Technologies
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI
Eagle builds the machines that automate assembly line manufacturing. From high-tech robotics to advanced product testing capabilities, Eagle offers end-to-end manufacturing solutions for every industry.