Apr 26, 2023

17 min read

Vertical Farming and the Power of IoT

Thanks to the burgeoning global population, we’re having to look at some pretty inventive ways to meet the steeply rising demand for food. Vertical farming is one super-cool agriculture practice that’s taken off in the last few years. Vertical farming allows us to grow more food per unit of land, which takes the pressure off finding more and more arable land to feed our growing billions. However, vertical farming isn’t without its share of challenges. Read ahead to find out more about the ins and outs of vertical farming and how technologies like IoT, wireless sensors and artificial intelligence are being used to revolutionise food-production as we know it.

Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the old saw. We humans are catastrophically bad at getting things done before calamity strikes. The only thing that seems to be able to push past our monumental tendency towards inertia is an impending disaster. Today, whether we like it or not, the various ecological crises unfolding around us are forcing us to take a nice long hard look at this massive and ungainly structure that we fondly refer to as the post-industrial human civilisation. The gravity of these challenges is forcing us to look hard for solutions.

These ecological challenges are not for the faint of heart - we’re gonna need balls of steel and huge quantities of good sense if we are to come out tops. In a lot of ways, we’re simply making a mess out of this awesome planet. There’s a lot of things wrong with the way we’ve stuff up around ourselves. But for now, let’s take a specific look at one particular issue of ginormous proportions - the global population!

There’s simply too many of us! Never before in the history of this planet have so many of us jostled about for dear room - recently, we crossed the 8 billion mark! If that number doesn’t sound like a reality check, it bloody should! What’s worse is that this figure doesn’t start going backwards on hitting landmarks, no matter how scary they sound to us - it only keeps growing! And fast! 

Feeding this gargantuan number of human beings is no mean task - the amounts of food we are going to require to keep the game going in the next 50 years or so is mind boggling! These figures are so astronomical. So spine-chillingly scary, that you’d be well justified in just wanting to curl up in your favourite duvet and wait for the apocalypse. 

But thankfully, it would seem that we humans are a resilient and innovative lot. As much as we have an unmatched propensity for all things sinister and destructive, we do also seem to possess uncanny levels of smarts - well, at least some of us do. 

Like we said at the start, necessity breeds innovation. In this case, an impending food crisis has bred a very off-kilter albeit super innovative response - vertical farming. 

What is vertical farming?

When the global population hits 9 billion, which it is slated to by the year 2050,  our current run rate simply won’t cut it. We simply won’t have enough arable land, going by today’s land productivity stats - i.e. the amount of food produced per unit of land.  As more and more land area in the world is taken up by urban sprawl, the amount of land available to grow stuff on is dwindling as it is.

Vertical farming aims to solve this problem by stacking up layers upon layers of crops on top of one another. This is a way to give ourselves an extra dimension of space to work with. 

Typically, vertical farming comes with an entire host of advantages that make it a uniquely differentiated modality of growing food crops - most vertical farming setups make use of various degrees of environmental control. Moreover, vertical farming can be carried out pretty much anywhere - shipping containers, penthouse apartments, tunnels, underground bunkers, abandoned factories, mineshafts - you name it. 

With vertical farming, we’re simply able to grow plants that take less space and grow more veggies, fruits, and cereal per square metre of land. That’s a well-nigh invaluable advantage in a world where we’re running out of space to grow food.

Now you see what the hubbub surrounding vertical farming is all about. 

Vertical farming is super energy-intensive. In a typical vertical farming setup, various state-of-the-art technologies such as big data analytics, IoT, AI, ML, and robotics are employed in tandem, to ensure that the crops we grow are healthy and nutritious in spite of various logistical constraints. 

The best part of vertical farms is that they’re able to rejuvenate abandoned buildings and desolate neighbourhoods by converting them into urban food factories. For instance, the city of Detroit in America has more than its fair share of neglected neighbourhoods, abandoned warehouses and vacant residential buildings. In recent years, several companies have invested significant amounts of money to convert these structures into vertical farms that grow leafy greens and vegetables. This means that the local community has access to fresh, locally grown, fresh produce, at affordable prices - pretty neat huh?

What we’re trying to get at here is that vertical farming makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels. It allows us to amp up our food production while also allowing us to make use of infrastructure and resources more efficiently. All this means that it can also help bolster economic growth and social well-being. 

History of Vertical Farming

The history of vertical farming goes all the way back to the early 20th century. In the year Gilbert Bailey penned a book called vertical farming.  This book kicked off the idea and then, the concept took off from there. 

As we moved into the later years of the 20th century, there was ever-increasing demand for increased food production, pollution-free growing techniques and tech-based agriculture. The first recorded vertical farm came into being in the 1950s - it grew large quantities of cress. 

In the year 1999, a Columbia University professor named Dickson Despommier challenged his students to find ways to grow food on the roofs of New York City skyscrapers - this challenge led to the creation of a concept 30-floor hydroponic farm that could theoretically feed 50,000 people. Although this idea never came to fruition, it did set off a massive trend of trying to figure out ways to grow food in tight urban spaces. 

As we moved into the 2010s, a bunch of governments and developers got in on the act and pumped billions of dollars into building vertical farms across the world in locations such as Abu Dhabi, New York CIty, Los Angeles, Bangalore, Dubai, Beijing etc. 

It is estimated that over $2 billion dollars have been invested into startups working on vertical farms. The vertical farming industry is valued at around 3.47 billion dollars worldwide and is slated to witness some pretty hefty growth in the coming years. 

Types of Vertical Farms

Depending on the intended location and the kind of crops they’re meant for, vertical farms can come in a bunch of different forms. 

Tower farms: Tower farms use stacked layers of trays to grow crops. These systems are typically employed in the cultivation of green leafy vegetables and herbs. The biggest advantage with tower farms is that they are very modular - they can be scaled up or down to suit the requirements of a particular case.

Green Walls - Green walls refers to vertical gardens that are installed on the walls of buildings. These are built with aesthetic appeal in mind and lend a pleasing natural aesthetic to otherwise ominous and grey urban settings.

Skyfarms: Skyfarms are multi-story vertical farms that employ hydroponic or aeroponic growing systems to grow crops. These farms are typically situated on rooftops in urban areas where space is scarce.

Aquaponics: Aquaponics is a type of vertical farming that combines pisciculture with hydroponic farming. The waste from the fish is used as a nutritional supplement for the crops.

Container farms: Container farms are exactly what they sound like - vertical farms that are located in shipping containers. These systems can be transported to various locations as required and are often used to grow crops in areas where traditional farming is not possible for some reason.

Modular farms: Modular farms are prefabricated vertical farming systems that can be assembled and disassembled as needed. These systems are typically used for research or demonstration purposes and can be easily tailored to suit the requirements of a particular vertical farmer.

Sustainability of Vertical Farming

Vertical farming isn’t just more productive. It’s also better for the planet. 

Sustainability is all about efficient use of resources. As we saw earlier, vertical farming allows us to grow food in all manner of places that are otherwise not being used. That’s a big sustainability-point to begin with. Using abandoned buildings to grow food crops as opposed to clearing out more and more forested land in order to make space? That’s a no brainer. 

But it’s not just that. Vertical farming also allows us to economise on our use of natural resources such as water. Here are some numbers to show you just what we mean - A recent study showed that we need about enough water to fill an average freezer to produce 1kg of lettuce using traditional agriculture. If we grow the same amount of lettuce in a greenhouse, we only need about a bucket full of water. Now, when we use vertical-farming, astonishingly, we only need about a medium-sized pan full of water! 

That’s pretty jaw-dropping stuff. Water scarcity is a serious problem for most people even today. According to UNICEF, about 2/3rds of the world’s population experiences water scarcity for at least a month every year. 

Then there’s also the matter of crop yield - vertical farms are typically able to achieve way higher crop yields. Let’s use the lettuce example again to see how this works. If you cultivate lettuce on a field measuring exactly 1 metre square (  i.e 1 metre x 1 metre), you can expect a yield of about 3.9 kg per year. If we grow the lettuce in a greenhouse of the exact same acreage, we can expect a harvest of about 41kg. Now, prepare to be astounded again. With vertical farms, the yield can be a whopping 20 times more than in traditional agricultural fields - so, a yield of about 80 kg! 

What’s even cooler is that we don’t actually need soil to grow stuff in vertical farms. Because vertical farms use hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics, they are able to grow crops without using soil. This is extremely promising in the context of the soil crisis that’s currently underway. As arable land continues to become more scarce, we will find that this feature of vertical farming could be indispensable to us. 

Our world today is hyper-globalised. We know this. Our phones come from China, our movies from America, our wines from France and so on. On a deeper level, there’s practically no industry left in the world today that doesn’t interact with at least some part of the global economic network. 

Food grown through traditional agricultural methods often travels a long way around the world before it reaches your plate. On average, conventionally grown food is said to travel an average of around 3200 km before it is consumed. This means that conventionally grown food comes with a massive carbon footprint. With vertical farming, this is not the case. 

Because vertical farms are not subject to climatic constraints and can be located pretty much anywhere, they don’t come with the massive environmental cost of transportation emissions. Compared to traditional greenhouses however, vertical farms are estimated to have about a 67-92% lower carbon dioxide output.

This makes for some other important benefits as well - when food is grown near where we live as opposed to being shipped to us from far-flung locations, it is much fresher by the time it gets into us. This means that the food doesn’t have to be propped up by artificial chemical agents and therefore, is likely to be much healthier. 

IoT sensors and Vertical Farming

Vertical farming is predicated on artificially ensuring a tightly controlled growing environment for crops. 

There is practically no wiggle room in terms of natural variables and conditions such as ambient temperature, humidity and lighting. One of the pre-requisites of vertical farming is that these parameters along with other similar ones need to be monitored and adjusted in real-time to ensure that they are meeting the optimum requirements for a great yield. 

This is where IoT technology comes in.IoT-based connected technology is used to achieve this kind of tight control in vertical farming setups. 

Now, how does that work?

IoT sensors come in a variety of purpose-built shapes and sizes - there are various sensors that are designed to sense various kinds of parameters in their environments. For instance, a number of IoT sensors are likely to be employed in your average vertical farm including temperature sensors, humidity sensors, natural light, level sensors, CO2 sensors, NPK sensors etc. These sensors pick up measurements in real-time and relay them to the back end where enormous amounts of data are gathered and subjected to analytics, in order to plan the best interventions.

IoT implementation brings a certain modularity to indoor vertical top farms, allowing for various kinds of plants to be grown in the same setup, while ensuring robust health and high yields. For example, when a sensor detects that the temperature in a particular area of the vertical farm is rising above permissible levels, it actuates a command to trigger the cooling system to switch on. Similarly, if the humidity sensors in the system detect that the humidity levels are too low, the system can trigger a series of commands that would adjust the moisture content in the room.

When large amounts of highly-granular data are collected and subjected to AI analytics, we are able to implement highly targeted and specific growing conditions for various plants, based on their natural requirements. This kind of a system brings about a kind of efficiency and parsimony of resources that would otherwise be unimaginable. 

With IoT technology we can automate many of the processes involved in vertical farming such as irrigation, fertilisation and harvesting. This can slash labour costs dramatically, which adds to the economic viability of vertical farming. 

For example, an automated irrigation system can be set-up to water crops at specific times of the day. It can even be programmed to let out specific quantities of water and specific times for specific plants. Similar automation can be implemented for other processes involved in the conventional farming too, with a high degree of precision. Now, that’s compelling stuff!

Challenges and Concerns with Vertical Farming

Alas, nothing’s perfect and neither is vertical farming - for all its promise and advantages, vertical farming does come with its fair share of challenges as well. 

One of the biggest challenges with vertical farming is the amount of upfront investment it demands - with the amount of specialised equipment and high-tech backend frameworks that are required to set up a vertical farm. This makes vertical farming a prohibitively expensive option for smaller businesses. 

There have also been concerns about the environmental impact of vertical farming, particularly, the large amounts of energy that are typically consumed by these setups. Artificial lighting and climate control systems typically consume a lot of energy. This also ties in with the previous point - high energy bills are something small farmers can’t cope with. This makes vertical farming an elusive prospect unless you’re an entity with massive means. 

Another issue with vertical farming is that it demands a lot of technical expertise. It’s no mean feat to keep a vertical farm running. In spite of the AI and IoT wizardry taking care of a lot of the minutiae, vertical farmers are still required to have a deep understanding of various plants’ environmental requirements. This can make vertical farming a daunting thing to take up if you’re a newbie. 

Also, not all crops can be grown using vertical farming. This is another constraint. The overall conditions of a vertical farm are very different from those in a traditional agricultural setup and this means that some plants just won’t grow as well. The staple crops for most of the world are grains and for instance, grains are typically not suited to be grown in vertical farms. 

Batteryless Sensors For Vertical Farming

IoT-sensors have taken over the world - it is safe to say that there is not a single industry left on the planet that has not been utterly transformed by IoT technology.

Vertical farming is no exception.We live in a world that’s getting more and more connected. Wireless sensors enable this hyperconnectedness. We saw some of the problems and challenges that are stopping vertical farming from truly growing into its potential. Let’s see if batteryless IoT can help us with some of these challenges.

But first, we need to understand what batteryless sensors are. Ok. Here’s the rundown, in a nutshell.

The world of IoT is essentially made possible by wireless sensors. Sensors allow us to connect everyday objects around us to the internet. They act as nodes that allow us to have eyes, as it were, that open into the world around us and allow us to glean all sorts of useful information.

In the past, IoT sensors were typically powered by batteries or mains. However, in recent years, batteryless IoT has emerged as a powerful alternative. It’s really not hard to understand why - a world with 1 trillion battery-powered sensors would imply a scenario where we’d have to discard 1 trillion batteries into our environment. It’s simply a no-go. 

So, it should come as no surprise to anybody that when viable energy harvesting powered sensors started emerging, the world of IoT scooped them up with both hands. It was very clear that the future of IoT was going to be batteryless. Batteryless sensors come with a number of advantages over their traditional, battery-powered forebears - Firstly, they cost less over the lifetime of an IoT setup. Secondly, they are substantially more eco-friendly. And thirdly, they basically slash maintenance costs to zero. 

Now, back to the matter at hand. So, how are batteryless sensors going to help face the challenges we listed out earlier, with both the indoor farming industry and vertical farming?

Energy consumption is probably the single biggest pain point associated with vertical farming. Batteryless sensors can make a massive difference in this regard - As we saw earlier, there’s simply no vertical farming without sensors - any vertical farming setup necessitates the use of various kinds of wireless sensors to monitor ambient parameters. Traditional battery-powered sensors require battery-replacements every now and then.! Energy harvesting sensors, on the other hand, simply draw the power they need from their surrounding environment. This means that they can pretty much go on indefinitely, without any intervention. Over the lifetime of a vertical farm, batteryless, energy harvesting sensors would make for a ton of savings in terms of power consumption. This means that batteryless sensors would also make vertical farms more economically viable. 

Secondly, batteryless sensors have fewer moving components and are therefore less maintenance heavy. In addition to saving the business a ton of cash by cutting down on energy costs, batteryless sensors also make for significant savings in terms of maintenance costs. Because they have no batteries, they don’t need much maintenance at all. They pretty much keep going and going and going. 

These are all pretty compelling advantages no doubt. But the real reason why batteryless sensors are the way to go for the vertical farms of the future is that they’re the only ecologically viable option. BY FAR. After all, isn’t that what all of this is about? The whole point of innovative farming techniques, such as vertical farming is to find more sustainable ways to live on this planet. 

Battery-powered sensors are an ecological nightmare and they simply don’t belong in our future. As the global IoT project scales up rapidly, we simply have to be categorical about this. There’s no way we’re going to dump hundreds of billions of batteries into landfills - our planet simply can’t take it. 

Summing Up

Vertical farming is a hugely promising technology that has significant potential to transform the way we approach food production, going ahead. The global population is slated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. There is a very pressing need to look beyond our usual ways and embrace innovative solutions, if we are to stay on top of this enormous challenge. 

As the IoT revolution enters its adolescence, there is all the more hope going around that it’s going to give us some much-needed answers in our quest to build a sustainable future for all life on earth. 

Overall, the integration of IoT technologies into vertical farming has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce and consume food, making it more sustainable, efficient, and accessible. As the world continues to face global challenges such as climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity, the need for innovative solutions such as IoT and vertical farming has never been greater. With continued research, development, and implementation of these technologies, we can work towards a more sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations.

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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