The Rise of Vertical Farming and the Role of AI

Vertical Farming: An Overview

Vertical farming is a modern agricultural system of growing plants in vertically stacked layers within the confines of a controlled environment. 

By 2050, the world is set to be a very different place. In the first instance, it is projected that the global population will hit 9 billion. Ongoing land degradation and loss of arable farmland further means that this growing population may not have sufficient food to meet its needs if innovative solutions are not developed for large-scale use in the future.

Vertical farming is a radical shift from the dependence on nature to self-reliance as a species.

So, how does it work? There are 3 major techniques behind vertical farming:

i. Hydroponics – Liquid solutions, rather than soil, are used to grow plants. The solution is rich in macronutrients, trace nutrients, and materials such as gravel to support plant roots.

ii. Aquaponics – This combines growing plants with raising aquatic life. Wastewater from the fish tanks is rich in nutrients, especially nitrate, which can be artificially extracted from harmful ammonia. Plants can absorb nitrate from the semi-treated water further helping to purify it. The wastewater is further purified from this process and recycled back to the fish tanks. Other ways this closed-loop system functions mutually benefits both lifeforms is the production of CO2 by the fish for use by the plants and the production of O2 for the fish by plants.  

iii. Aeroponics – This is a less common technique but crucial for the future. Here, the plants are suspended in air chambers and a nutrient-rich liquid solution is misted into the environment. It is a more efficient technique as it consumes around 90% less water than the hydroponic technique.

Vertical farms could be constructed inside buildings, shipping containers, or refurbished underground tunnels and mine shafts (called deep farms).

Vertical farms hold the promise of greater crop yield with less farmland used, less water required and pesticide/herbicide-free crops. The use of vertical farms means that crops can be grown right within city centres eliminating the need for long-distance travel. The produce can be delivered fresh to the consumer.

According to Markets and Markets, the market has a lot of growth potential as it is expected to reach $9.7 billion by 2026.

Vertical farming and AI

Depending on the scale of complexity and the project's vision, a vertical farm could be housed in a multi-level story building. 

Each floor can function as an independent unit powered by IoT and AI related technologies. In a vertical farm, multiple AI applications are applied. Drones equipped with computer vision algorithms can be used for surveillance and disease detection. Sensors are used to monitor nutrient and water content of the plants for targeted delivery of needs as required. The sensors also control other factors like temperature, humidity, and light.

Agrobots can be used to coordinate the harvesting of the products and their transport to storage sites for later distribution.

Machine learning algorithms can use all of the data generated in the running of vertical farms to improve the automated running of the system, creating a constant growth cycle.

Challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing vertical farms is the economics of it. The initial set-up cost is expensive and not more beneficial than outdoor farming in the short-term.

There are also logistics to be worked out to ensure that each floor of a multi-level vertical farm can run as an independent unit that is still integrated into the overall water and nutrient supply network.

Also, without natural sunlight, the energy needs of the crops need to be factored in a cost-efficient approach.


Resources

https://psmag.com/environment/farming-in-high-rises-raises-hopes-3705

https://youtu.be/lXuQKoQCtOc

https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/vertical-farming-market-221795343.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming#Deep_farms




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