No Sun, No Soil, No Problem

Plenty grows bountiful crops inside urban warehouses optimized by IoT, big data, and machine learning.

 

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Image credit: Plenty

 

Outside of San Francisco, agriculture collective company Plenty has nurtured its newest and largest smart hydroponic farm into full production. An abundant array of greens is the farm’s bumper crop, and SF Bay Area chefs are describing them as “delicious, vibrant, and luscious.”

Plenty relies on hydroponic farming, where plants are grown without soil in large vertical towers between 15 and 20 feet tall. Nutrients are dissolved in water and fed into the top of the poles sprouting from the towers. While the hydroponic, vertical farm is staffed by humans, IoT, big data, and machine learning technologies take the lead in deciding what the plants will need to flourish.

 

Lights, Cameras, Action

Water, light, and nutrients are carefully balanced at Plenty to keep plants healthy and most important, tasty. All water, even condensation, is recycled on the urban farm, and the rows of tall green walls gain nourishment from LED lights that deliver a carefully calibrated array of light spectrums. Agronomists, with the help of tons of data, define the best mixture of red and blue wavelengths for the plants.

Inside the 50,000 square-foot warehouse, the data is abundant. It arrives from 7,500 infrared cameras and 35,000 sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, and air quality while the cameras record the plants’ growing phases. All the collected data is analyzed and pushed through machine learning algorithms to advise growers on which plants need more water or light and how they can improve the farm to produce the highest-quality crops.

Indoor Farms Take Root in Urban Spaces

When compared to conventional outdoor farms, indoor farms have lots of advantages. Plenty’s specific take on indoor farming, vertical farming, pushes the balance even more toward indoor farming’s favor. Vertical farming can grow more food in a smaller footprint. Plenty claims that its vertical towers achieve yields up to 350x per square foot higher than that in a conventional field. Other advantages are that water use is 1 percent of conventional farms, and the plants require zero pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

A big disadvantage, however, is the amount of power required to keep the farms running. Even with that cost concern, analysts and investors are offering support for Plenty and other indoor farmers. Millions are being invested in indoor urban farms in every corner of the globe as they promise to produce more food with less environmental impact. In 2017, Softbank led a $200 million funding round for Plenty that was one of the largest investments in agriculture technology ever.

Other indoor farms receiving funding are AeroFarms, Gotham Greens, and Bowery Farming.  All these contenders have major business plans for growth. Plenty expects to build an indoor farm outside every urban city with more than 1 million residents. That’s 500 farms across the globe.

Like Plenty, all these indoor farming ventures see a future with more farms, more sensors, more lights, and more data as they plant their seeds in urban landscapes around the world.