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Reaching New Heights with Vertical Farms and Robotics

Sustainability in Three Dimensions

Picture a snow globe. Inside its crystalline sphere, the conditions are always ideal for a winter wonderland—even in the hottest days of summer. So, what if farmers could take this idea and use it to create optimal, self-contained cultivation environments that allowed them to grow their crops during the dead of winter?   

A traditional approach to this challenge is greenhouse farming, in which glass domes heighten and retain solar energy within a growing environment that’s closed off from the surrounding atmosphere. As a result, the temperature inside the dome is warmer and more stable, allowing farmers to cultivate warm-weather crops during the cold seasons.
 
If farmers can grow their crops through the winter, what if they could grow them through the night?

What if growers could create the infrastructure to get 10 acres worth of production from only one acre of land? 

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What if growers could create the infrastructure to get 10 acres worth of production from only one acre of land? 

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It may sound improbable to grow plants in closed environments without relying on the sun, but modern agriculture is already making incredible strides in bringing 24/7 cultivation to reality by augmenting existing practices with indoor vertical farms and robotic technologies.  

In fact, vertical farms are on the rise. There are currently 2.2 million square feet of indoor farms operating across the globe, and that number is expected to increase almost tenfold to 22 million square feet in the next five years. Will vertical farming replace conventional farming practices? No, but this dramatic rise in indoor farms will add even more of a boost to our future food production capabilities, complementing the incredible innovations that are being made in traditional sun-soaked, outdoor crops. 
 
Why such the exponential increase in interest and investment in both vertical farms and robotics? In short, this pairing offers profound potential to help agriculture achieve sustainability in the environmental, economic, and societal spheres. 

 

Protected environments to protect our environment

The most widely discussed benefit of indoor vertical farming is its ability to greatly conserve natural resources such as water, land, and nutrients while concurrently improving harvests for select crops such as leafy greens, tomatoes, and herbs. Interestingly enough, the technologies that vertical farms utilize often overlap those used to optimize the growth potential of conventional outdoor crops, which aren’t limited in terms of the crop varieties they can produce.  
 
The relationship between indoor farms and nature is as interesting as it is symbiotic. Broadly speaking, indoor vertical farms create ideal growing conditions for plants by insulating crops from the harsh extremes of climate change and seasonality. At the same time, these self-contained systems also protect the exterior environment by conserving resources. There are many factors to this mutually beneficial equation.

Cultivating a stronger economy

A few years ago, many viewed vertical farming as largely theoretical. Today, the practice has blossomed into a major worldwide industry with a current market value just shy of $15 billion annually.

One of the biggest reasons vertical farming is feasible is due to the advancement of AI and robotic technologies that bolster efficiencies to cut costs, save resources, and boost profits. In fact, without the economies of scale that these technologies provide, vertical indoor farms would not be economically viable.

To keep costs down, modern sensors and smart energy systems drastically reduce the overall energy consumption required to produce crops by determining the exact amount of nutrients needed for each individual plant. Many of these new robots are equipped with cameras, sensors, and algorithms that assess when plants are ready for harvest on an individual level. This targeted platform is already enhancing the economic performance of cauliflower crops by helping farmers identify when to pick specific plants at the perfect time in their growth cycle in lieu of full-field harvests that can waste up to 60% of otherwise viable plants.

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To keep costs down, modern sensors and smart energy systems drastically reduce the overall energy consumption required to produce crops by determining the exact amount of nutrients needed for each individual plant. Many of these new robots are equipped with cameras, sensors, and algorithms that assess when plants are ready for harvest on an individual level. This targeted platform is already enhancing the economic performance of cauliflower crops by helping farmers identify when to pick specific plants at the perfect time in their growth cycle in lieu of full-field harvests that can waste up to 60% of otherwise viable plants.

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Technologies don’t have to be extreme to make a significant difference in vertical farms. Even subtle innovations like advanced LED bulbs are helping make indoor farms cost-effective by increasing energy efficiency while drastically reducing heat waste within the system. 

Taken together, indoor vertical farms and automated technologies are producing a 100-fold increase in efficiency to generate 10 times the harvest while using only 1/10th of the resources. That’s a pleasing cost-to-benefit ratio, especially when you consider that many of these efficiencies are also bringing similar results to increase productivity and profits on conventional farms.

 

 

 

 

 

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Raising social standards

The breakthrough of indoor vertical farming is driving positive social change as well. Because indoor farms can operate anywhere, they are not subject to the same geographic or environmental limitations of outdoor farms. In fact, they are even building community by bringing fresh produce to people in areas that are removed from farms, markets, and grocery stores.
 
These hyperlocal indoor farms are already breaking down many other boundaries typically associated with our food system. Even in urban environments, vertical farms are making use of repurposed shipping containers and abandoned buildings to bring food closer to the fridge. This shortened supply chain reduces our reliance on fossil fuels to transport produce from far-away farms, while reducing loss of food that gets damaged or spoils along the journey. The close proximity of indoor vertical farms within more urban areas also helps farmers encourage their new neighbors to become more engaged in collectively building a more sustainable future. 
 
On a global scale, the cost efficiencies of vertical farming are becoming increasingly available to both industrialized and developing nations. Particularly in Asia, government and private sector groups are supporting research that is lowering the threshold for vertical farms to make a meaningful impact throughout the region—and by  extension, across the globe.
 

 

 

 

 

 

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The future is looking up

As climate change and a growing global population continue to raise the stakes for our food system, vertical farming is emerging as one of many complementary solutions in our collective pursuit of sustainability. What’s more: vertical and conventional farms are exploring parallel paths of innovation to create new and complementary technologies that fuel the potential of every farm. With these ongoing breakthroughs in robotic and AI technologies, people from city-centers to developing countries are already enjoying new relationships with the possibilities, vision, and resourcefulness of modern agriculture.
 

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