The United Nations predicts that the world population will hit nearly 10 billion by the year 2050, up from the 7.5 billion people of today’s global populace. That’s going to be a whole lot of new mouths to feed. If that were not enough of a challenge, a recent study by Yale predicts that 70 percent of the world’s population will live in an urban environment around the same time the population breaks 10 billion. That’s incredible considering that the number of urban dwellers just recently overtook the number of non-urban dwellers in 2008. Lastly, if we consider that climatic and ecological shifts may disrupt traditional farmlands in unpredictable ways—perhaps leading to over-farming or unusable land—it would seem our civilization could be in for an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as a result of massive food shortages. That is, unless we start to think differently about very fundamental aspects of the agricultural business. One such idea that might be a part of the solution to this looming food crisis has been talked about in abstract for decades, but is only now beginning to gain some real-world traction. That idea is the vertical farm (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Vertical farming can move agriculture from rural to urban environments. (Source: Wikipedia)
Vertical farming is a pretty straight-forward idea: Instead of large tracts of farmland in rural settings, crop production could be moved closer to human population centers by building farms inside of skyscraper-esque buildings. Farms would no longer be measured in acres, but rather by the number of floors. It’s an intriguing concept that presents both benefits and challenges. In an enclosed vertical farm, the growing season can last year-round. But in exchange for that benefit, you give up access to free abundant sunshine and rainfall to give nutrients to the crops. Instead, technology must be used to provide what mother nature does naturally. Smart, automated environmental monitoring and control is a key enabler for vertical farming.
Even if industrial scale vertical “factory farms” still seems a bit futuristic, it isn’t stopping people from applying a DIY attitude to experimenting with vertical farming. Large niches of the maker community are dedicated to applying the maker ethos and electronics to the art of cultivating crops. Vertical farming, along with techniques like aeroponics and hydroponics, are fertile playgrounds (pun intended) for today’s technology enthusiast with a foodie bent. From a technology perspective, vertical farming is all about controlling the environmental conditions. By precisely controlling temperature, hydration, and light exposure, it’s possible to cut the growing cycle by as much as 50 percent with aeroponics-based vertical farms. At the heart of many maker and pro-maker farm-focused environmental control products is the humble Arduino.
FarmBot is one such product that contains an Arduino and a motor controller shield to provide 3-D printer-like robotic control to leverage various apparatus, including a moisture sensor that measures soil’s water content as well mechanisms to plant seeds, water crops, and even remove irksome weeds. Robotic control could prove to be extremely valuable in vertical farming at scales that would be inefficient or unsafe for human involvement given the potential heights associated with vertical farming. For these sophisticated farming products, larger form factor Arduinos such as the Arduino Mega are popular due to their increased number of GPIO pins to control a great number of external sensors and actuators involved (Figure 2).
Figure 2: FarmBot uses an Arduino Mega and motor controller shield. (Source: Wikipedia)
Being able to accurately monitor sensors and interface with actuators or other electronics devices is of course something the Arduino platform is quite adept at doing. Vertical farming is dependent on these sensors as well as individuals constantly monitoring and tending to the plants during their growing cycle. Thanks to advancements in technology, the Internet of Things (IoT) has allowed for the more efficient use of resources and management of data. The data that is collected from these sensors would be sent to transceivers such as the Microchip ATA8520 Single-Chip SIGFOX™ RF Transceivers applied in environmental sensors in smart farming, would be sent to a wireless medium to be viewed by the farmers so that they can make adjustments or changes if deemed necessary (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The Arduino MKR1000 fits a lot of IoT tech in a tiny form factor.
Tech friendly communities such as Modern Farmer and FarmHack offer aspiring vertical farmer instructions on how to build their own electronic hardware to incorporate into their vertical farms. One such project, known as Fido, was an instant success with many aspiring farmers who were looking for a simple SMS-based solution to remotely monitor temperature conditions. The simplicity also means that the design is very compact, making it perfect for smaller Arduino form factors such as the Nano or the IoT-friendly MKR1000.
Lastly, the Robotic Urban Farm System (RUFS) specifically embraces the concepts of vertical farming and hydroponics at the scales that would be affordable for individual families or small neighborhood co-ops (Figure 4). RUFS is a fairly ambitious effort but offers great benefits for the DIY vertical farmer. Their open source plans promise the ability to create a vertical hydroponic garden complete with automated watering cycles, plant nutrient delivery, pH levels monitoring and maintenance, temperature monitoring and maintenance, air circulation control, and even LED lighting control. RUFS is actually composed of three Arduino-based subsystems (affectionately referred to a “bots”), including ClimateBot, pHarmBot and hydroBot. They all reach back to a Linux-based computer for more sophisticated data analysis and to provide a user interface to the vertical farmer.
Figure 4: Robotic Urban Farming System: RUFS. (Source: Instructables)
Are you a vertical farmer? We’d like to see your farm or garden! What other clever ways are Arduinos being used to help run vertical farms? What features would you design into your farm if you were to start a vertical farm or garden? Let us know in the comments down below.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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