Partner content : Next-Generation Greenhouses: Is the Grass Really Greener?

Partner content | Article written by Sherif Zaroubi, CEO of Axceta

How can the Internet of Things (IoT) help address sustainability challenges, and land and labor shortages and pave the way for food autonomy?

From Canada’s chilling winds to Southeast Asia’s tropical zones, greenhouses are making a mark. Canada exemplifies this trend perfectly. With greenhouse produce sales escalating for nine consecutive years, it registered a 9.3% increase in 2021 alone [1].

In recent years, greenhouses and vertical farming have become catalysts for transformation, experiencing significant technological advancements. They promise year-round food production, contribute to shorter producer-to-consumer cycles, reducing the carbon footprint associated with long-distance transportation of fresh produce while significantly improving productivity.

Glasshouses are at the forefront of agricultural innovation, integrating connected objects to address the urgent challenge of sustainable food production. However, this green revolution also presents new challenges and prompts questions about the evolving role of farmers in this landscape.

Pioneering the Automated Glasshouse: the Convergence of Agriculture and Technology

The greenhouse of the future is an orchestra of sensors, cameras, and devices that monitors and manages the environment, and covers a wide range of use cases such as:

  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Automated Control Systems
  • Soil and Nutrient Monitoring
  • Water Management
  • Disease and Pest Detection
  • Energy Management
  • Supply Chain and Inventory Management.

Utilizing real-time data such as temperature, humidity, advanced heating systems, LED lighting, and automated planting and harvesting mechanisms, the greenhouse autonomously adjusts conditions to provide customized care to each plant. This precision surpasses traditional farming, resulting in improved crop quality, optimized resource usage, and real-time environment control.

Overcoming Greenhouse Challenges: The Drive for Sustainability

Renewable Energy Adoption

Temperature and lighting constitute the primary energy demands in greenhouses. The pivot towards cleaner energy solutions, such as solar systems and electric energy, reflects an industry-wide commitment to sustainability [2]. However, some energy sources come with their own challenges. In cold regions for example, peak demand on electricity grids can lead to energy shortage, and force greenhouses to use alternative energy sources to ensure their production viability. That may result in the adoption of secondary energy sources such as fuel or gas, leading to increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Innovative solutions can offer cleaner energy alternatives that bolster sustainability. For example, Canadian research teams [3] have been exploring the potential of harnessing waste heat from data centers to power greenhouses. This innovative approach could result in a remarkable 60% decrease in energy consumption compared to traditional propane heaters. Regardless of the chosen clean energy source, ensuring uninterrupted supply is also crucial to safeguard the production process.

IoT can contribute to anticipating and managing the optimization of power supply for different sources: an IoT powered smart grid system can connect various renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, and biogas generators, to a central controller that monitors and regulates the power output and distribution. The controller uses IoT sensors and devices to collect data on the weather conditions, the energy demand, battery storage capacity, and the grid status, correlating with weather forecast and other types of information from the Internet. Such an IoT powered smart grid system can help farmers reduce their energy costs, increase their energy efficiency and reliability, and lower their carbon footprint. It can also enable them to participate in the energy market and generate additional income by selling surplus power to the grid or other consumers.

Managing Water Resources

While indoor cultivation often entails significant water use, innovative recycling techniques and strategies are employed to mitigate environmental impacts. Embracing the minimal liquid discharge (MLD) principle, recycling drainage water, and limiting nutrient emission exemplify such endeavours[4]. Similar to the solution described above to help manage energy utilization, an IoT solution can allow optimizing water resources usage. Using wireless sensors the solution can collect and analyze data about humidity, temperature, soil composition and control watering systems with connected valves to deliver the right amount of water to each plant.

Embracing Sustainable Waste Management

Modern greenhouses are innovating waste management. By converting organic waste into renewable energy and fertilizers and recycling inorganic waste, they showcase the potential of closed-loop systems. A great example of an IoT powered solution that will help transform organic waste into fertilizer and energy is the BTSys project. The BTSys system uses sensors and controllers to monitor and optimize the anaerobic digestion process, which produces biogas and bio-digestate from organic waste. The biogas can be used for heating, electricity generation, or transportation fuel, while the bio-digestate can be used as a regenerative organic fertilizer that improves soil health and crop productivity.

Integrated Disease Management

The contained environment of a greenhouse, although beneficial in many respects, can exacerbate certain plant diseases. Many factors, such as a lack of proper ventilation, condensation and high relative humidity, influence plant disease development in the greenhouse. Integrated pest management (IPM) offers a comprehensive strategy by combining cultural, biological, and chemical tactics for effective disease control. By leveraging connected sensors and feeding Machine Learning models, it is possible to predict crop diseases such as Powdery Mildew outbreaks on tomato crops and to take corrective action [5].

Rethinking the Farmer’s Role in the Era of Connected Indoor Agriculture

Synthesizing Data for Actionable Insights: a new avenue using AI

As greenhouses evolve into interconnected ecosystems, augmented by the use of multiple IoT sensors, actuators and controllers, the field is ripe for the introduction of AI to derive actionable insights from the deluge of data. With efficient IoT data aggregation, normalization and modeling, Machine Learning models can rapidly improve to foster predictive analytics and optimal resource allocation.

However, these are just more sophisticated tools that need to be properly configured and trained.

A new role for Farmers

The current era demands a new capability that combines the traditional knowledge of farmers with the expertise of IoT and connected device integrators. Farmers possess the unique ability to determine the data they need and how it should be analyzed. By leveraging Artificial Intelligence, they can enhance their capability to process the vast amount of data generated by all the connected devices. Subsequently, farmers and IoT experts can collaborate to automate many of the tasks previously performed manually by humans. This will revolutionize the way farmers operate and enable them to acquire valuable skills for their future, transforming their role in the new agriculture value chain.

Collaborating for a Brighter Future

As technology continues to advance, the integration of IoT within greenhouses is becoming increasingly sophisticated, resulting in greenhouses with greater capabilities. However, in addition to technological advancements, it is crucial for farmers to make eco-conscious and sustainable decisions in adopting automated operations for the future of indoor agriculture. They can benefit from working with experts who understand their challenges and have experience in agriculture technology.

Axceta is an expert in IoT initiatives and supports greenhouse equipment manufacturers. As a qualified expert at Zone Agtech, Quebec’s premier hub for intelligent greenhouses and vertical farming, and a partner of global Agtech companies, Axceta is the ideal partner for successful greenhouse IoT projects

For further insights or collaborations, please reach out to our team. www.axceta.com

Sources

¹ https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220426/dq220426e-eng.htm

² https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy21osti/80382.pdf

³ https://substance.etsmtl.ca/en/heating-greenhouse-with-data-centre-waste-heat

⁴ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0011916421001089

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