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There is something new in the world of agriculture. Vertical farming is turning cities into places that might be the solution to at least some of our global food needs. In this two-part series, we will look at the need that vertical farming will meet, and the challenges it presents to the designers tasked with making it a reality.

Farming embracing technology

Farming has always embraced the latest technology
Image: http://www.orwellpastandpresent.org.uk/

The agricultural industry has always been at the forefront of technological development. Some may dismiss farming as a low-tech endeavour, possibly because it is slow. Farming depends so much on time and patience as crops are sown, cared for, and harvested. It takes weeks or months to see the results of all this effort, and with such a measured pace, it is easy to overlook the involvement of innovation.

In fact, farmers have always been amongst the first to adopt new ways of working. From the wheel and the plough to the steam engine and the cotton gin, farmers have always embraced new solutions that might increase their productivity.

Innovation in the Farming Industry

It was this very spirit of innovation that allowed the industrial revolution to take place. Without the latest technology, farmers would not have been able to grow sufficient food, nor transport it to the cities to feed the workers who were flocking to the newly built factories. The industrial revolution was made possible by the farming revolution. Modern farmers are facing the same challenges. The growth of the global population, which is expected to exceed 10 billion by the middle of the century, means that more food than ever will be needed to feed the megacities of the future.

At the same time, farmers are under enormous pressure. Environmental concerns mean that farmers are being asked to grow more while consuming fewer resources, and using methods that will not damage the environment. The amount of land available for food production is limited and is facing competition from other users. The growth of urban areas and the infrastructure that serves them is consuming vast areas that might previously have been used for crops. The generation of electricity, especially using solar and energy crops such as oilseed rape, is also displacing conventional farming.

The effect that mankind has had on the environment is already playing its part. Climate patterns are changing around the world, causing altered growing seasons, rising temperatures, and major water shortages in vital regions. The result of these combined pressures is that farmers are being asked to produce more with less.

Farmers using latest technology

Once again, the world of technology has come to the rescue. The agricultural sector continues to adopt the latest technology, this time powered by the internet and the 5G network. These are used to connect an array of devices from sensors and heavy machinery to the latest unmanned drones. These devices, which collect vast amounts of data and use it to make key decisions, are all made possible by the technology which has resulted in the smart farm.

Farming Underground

There are other exciting developments currently taking place in farming that are harder to see. Deep in the basements of buildings, in disused subway tunnels, or even in anonymous-looking warehouses, crops are being grown. Far from a single drop of rain or ray of sunlight, this is the world of vertical farming, only possible because of the technology that now exists to enable it.

Vertical farming replaces soil with racks of plastic trays, stacked high to maximise the output of every square meter. Crops are grown and fed using techniques such as hydroponics, something more familiar in the world of science fiction than farming. In hydroponics, plants gain the nutrients they need from their roots which are suspended in nutrient-rich water. The use of aeroponics takes this concept even further, where roots are fed with a fine mist rather than being immersed. Both techniques allow plants to be fed with the ideal mix of nutrients using far less water than conventional farming – in some cases a reduction of up to 98%.

Of course, water and nutrients are not the only things that plants need. The other critical element is sunshine which is vital to the photosynthesis that makes plants grow. The latest LED technology provides an alternative to direct sunlight. It doesn’t matter if the vertical farm is deep underground, as artificial lighting is now able to take the place of the sun.

Every city in the world has abandoned spaces, and it takes very little space to create a vertical farm. Remote from the inconvenience of unpredictable weather and growing seasons, the vertical farm is a fully managed environment. Technology will control the growing conditions, ensuring the perfect combination of light, temperature and humidity. Yield can be maximised, and food can be grown at any time of year, mere meters from the very population it is feeding.

Technology Meeting the Challenge

Technology taking the place of wind, sun and rain

Technology taking the place of wind, sun and rain

The challenge of feeding a growing population, the majority of whom live in the cities of the world, is becoming more urgent with every passing year. The vertical farm with its “grow anywhere” concept will play a key role in food security, but it depends on technology to work. Despite its controlled environment, conditions in the vertical farm mean that it will be a tough place for this technology to survive. Devices will have to be adapted to provide the functionality needed, even while being exposed to the farming environment.

In the next part of this series, we will look at exactly what this environment will look like, and how technology can be designed to meet this challenge.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.
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