Vertical farming is becoming ever more cost effective. Farming automation is a leading reason why.
Since vertical farming was first conceived, engineers have been experimenting with different ways to make it cost effective. And, like any new technology, many of those early attempts were too costly to be economically viable. However, with trial and error—and the emergence of even newer technologies in the meantime—vertical farms are beginning to prove that their initial up-front investment can hold its own against traditional, large-acre farms. They may even surpass them.
Vertical farms have several economic advantages over traditional farms:
- They use less land. Exactly how much depends on the crop (tall crops, such as corn or wheat, are not currently good candidates for vertical farming), but common statistics are that a vertical farm uses only 1% of the space that a traditional farm would.
- They use less water. Because vertical farms operate in a closed environment, less water is required because plants aren’t losing it to evaporation. The water that is in use can also be collected and recycled, creating a closed irrigation loop.
- They use no pesticides. Again, because crops are in a closed environment, none of their yield is lost to insects, rodents, or birds. This means that vertical farmers don’t have to purchase insecticide and other pest repellents, all while expecting a larger crop.
- They aren’t vulnerable to environmental crises. Amidst the chaos of climate change, many farmers are struggling with harsh weather: droughts, floods, or harsh storms. The indoor environment of a vertical farm means fresh produce can be grown year round, even in deserts or the Arctic.
- They require less transportation. Most produce is shipped hundreds or thousands of miles before it reaches its destination. A vertical farm could be located within a city, cutting down on both the environmental and economic costs.
That said, vertical farms do still have some economic barriers. Most notably, they require a lot of energy to run, and their startup costs are high. The good news is that the very features that make a vertical farm so expensive to construct in the beginning also contribute to cost savings farther down the line.
Advanced automation in the agricultural industry—as in any other industry—is an investment. However, with the right expertise aiding in the design and development of your vertical farm, it is also the key to running a cost-effective operation. Here are five ways that robotic technology aids vertical farming.
1. Robotic technology sows crops and transfers seedlings.
The story of agriculture is often one of technology—from the ox-drawn plow to the modern tractor—replacing back-breaking labor. In the process, these innovations make produce both more bountiful and more affordable because they allow for more food to be grown with fewer human man-hours.
Advanced robots are the next leap forward. Pick-and-place technology means that a single robotic station can be equipped to perform many operations on a single pallet. For example, robots might spend one day planting lettuce seeds in starter pods, and then the next day transferring tomato seedlings to larger growth pallets. The flexibility of robotic technology in vertical farming means there is less down time for equipment.
2. Automated systems harvest and package produce in one process.
Currently, produce grown in a field must be harvested and then shipped to another location to be sorted, packaged, and washed. Along the way it can be jostled and bruised, and may spend a few days in transit before it ends up on your grocery store shelves. In order to withstand this process, produce is often bred to be more hardy—at the expense of taste.
Because vertical farms operate in a sterile environment, crops don’t actually need to be washed before being packaged. Nor is there any need to have them go through any intermediate stage between harvesting and packaging. A pallet of cauliflower could be run straight through a conveyor belt, which slices the heads from the pallet and wraps them for delivery in one fell swoop.
3. Material handling systems store palletized beds in less space.
It may seem self-evident from their very name that vertical farms grow crops in less space than large-acre farms, but many people still conceptualize this in human terms. Instead of ten acres of land, they picture a building that is an acre large but ten stories tall. In some cases, there is only one bed of produce per floor, but in many others, a vertical farm can be much more space efficient.
For instance, if a farm tower is only growing a crop of plants that reaches a few inches in height, then even accounting for the root space and overhead LED lighting, it could stack twenty or thirty pallets inside a warehouse with only a few feet of space per pallet. Part of the reason this works is because automated systems can be responsible for transporting the pallets through different stages of the growing process. There doesn’t have to be room for humans to move around, because everything is handled by machine.
4. Sensor systems control lighting, temperature, water, and nutrients.
The technology of Industry 4.0 is enabling deeper insights into all stages of production, and its applications for agriculture are potentially more important than in many other industries. While many Industry 4.0 technologies are used for quality control in environments where uniformity is an expectation, the challenge of agriculture is that organic crops are never perfectly the same.
For these reasons, a sensor system that monitors crop health and adjusts growing conditions accordingly can actually be proactive in nurturing healthy produce, rather than just reactive in weeding out the good from the bad.
5. Drones monitor crop health even in tall structures.
Imagine a tall structure, like the one we described earlier. Despite all the sensor controls, a crop may still require visual inspection from a drone or camera system. Rather than send a human worker out to monitor a warehouse full of growing towers, drones can handle inspections on an automated schedule so that farmers can keep an eye on how well their crops are growing.
Vertical farming remains an exciting technology with major ramifications for agriculture—and the planet.
The future of vertical farming has the potential to transform the planet. As vertical farms become more cost-effective, they will begin to replace large-acre farms. If this land is given back to nature, it can mean the restoration of some natural habitats and a resurgence of biodiversity. It will also mean that more people can be fed cheaper, tastier, more nutritious produce grown, if not in their own backyard, then maybe in the back of their own supermarket.
At Eagle, these kinds of large-scale developments are part of what makes the automation industry so exciting to us. Our team specializes not only in advanced robotics, but in designing fully automated systems to meet our client’s needs. We bring together the technology and the testing to make custom automated solutions—in the agricultural industry as well as others. If you would like to learn about how our automated technology could be used to create a more efficient vertical farm, contact us today.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI