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Innovative use of automation paves the way for indoor food production

16 July 2017

Automation solutions and a future-proofed control system are helping to make vertical framing a viable proposition for food production. Food Processing reports. 

Vertical farming has been considered as a solution to a number of issues associated with the food supply chain. The technique involves growing crops in trays, which are stacked vertically as the name suggests, to generate more reliable harvests with low overheads. The method uses less water, pesticides and fertiliser and has low labour costs. Although it enables food to be grown closer to the point of use, even in urban settings, or areas not normally suitable for agriculture, until now the high energy demands required for the technique have hampered progress of this idea.

A new £2.5 million vertical farming facility is now being built at the James Hutton Institute’s site in Invergowrie near Dundee, in partnership with vertical farming entrepreneurs, Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS). The purpose-built facility, which will be built in phases, will be the first in the UK to use automated growth towers for vertical, indoor farming. Not only will it provide facilities for plant scientists to explore the optimal use of LED lighting for crop growth, but it should also overcome the other issues of vertical farming systems, such as operating at height and high energy demands. The first crops are expected this summer.

Commenting on the advantages of the technique, Henry Aykroyd, CEO of IGS, said: “Vertical farming allows us to provide the exact environmental conditions necessary for optimal plant growth. The collected growth data ensures the technique is repeatable in any location, at any time, providing fresh, consistent crops with less wastage.”

The ten-year project will investigate optimal growing conditions for a range of crops, by analysing previous crops using advanced scientific equipment. Crops to be grown include red and yellow chard, bulls blood, red and green mizuna, garden cress, red mustard frill, red mustard, tatsoi, red lambs cress, baby kale, romaine, red orrach, purslane, chick weed and salsola. 

The tower design features 64 4m x 1.6m growing trays in a stacking system. The stack-based tower design is highly scalable, as each tower has its own control system. All the labour-intensive processes are carried out at no more than 1m from the ground, providing easy and safe access to the growing trays for planting, harvesting and other activities. This also enables a more comprehensive automation system – for example by using robots to transplant trays – which further drives down costs and increases productivity. 

High energy consumption
One issue with previous vertical farming systems has been the requirement for lighting. Although LEDs are much more efficient than traditional high-pressure sodium lights, high energy consumption had made many first-generation vertical farming projects unviable. IGS has patented a new technology which maintains energy efficiency irrespective of the light output or wavelength being produced by the LEDs. Not only will this save considerable amounts of energy, but it will also allow the plant scientists at James Hutton to explore the best lighting conditions for a range of crops and growth stages. 

As well as the energy associated with lighting, indoor farming requires large quantities of energy for other processes, such as environmental control and mechanisation. However, electricity companies offer subsidies for energy users who are willing to respond to grid demand and turn their facilities off at certain periods. The electricity supplier will be able to take control of the system at key times, effectively turning it into a giant capacitor for the electricity grid. This, and maximising the use of cheaper rate electricity, has substantial reduced overall energy costs and further reduced the carbon footprint of the project.

One of the key factors which made this design possible has been the future-proof control system designed specifically for IGS by Omron. The integration of the stacking system, LED control, hydroponics and power systems is complex, especially since the design had to allow for new features and towers to be added when necessary. 
“Not only did our solution have to integrate a number of complex systems in a single design, but, as this is very much about optimising production, it needed to provide enough flexibility to quickly accommodate any changes in the prototype designs. The control for the lighting and hydroponics systems had to be completely integrated into the system,” said Kassim Okera, field sales engineer for Omron.

The stacking system, lighting, hydroponics and other components in each tower will be controlled directly by an Omron NJ machine controller, which can output secure data directly to a SQL database and communicate straight to the cloud. Other hardware includes an Omron NXCIF105 serial controller with two communication channels, allowing the optimal communications between different system elements such as lighting and conveyor control.

The control hardware is supported by the company’s Sysmac machine automation platform software, giving a single platform which can both develop the control software, and then control and monitor the towers. It will allow changes to the system as the trial progresses.

Once construction of the new facility is finished, IGS will look to increase the level of automation by incorporating Omron’s Adept LD range of Autonomous Indoor Vehicles (AIVs) to assist with the transport of samples and materials.

Dave Scott, technical director at IGS’, said: “Now we can control and monitor every aspect of our system, each motor, fan, luminaire, all the watering, nutrition, even the power consumption, everything in real-time. The Sysmac machine controller is powerful, robust and simple, allowing us to completely eliminate all traditional causes of down-time and failure. Omron's Sysmac approach will change the way industry uses data and automation. The next phase for us will be to integrate robots into the seeding and harvesting. We are currently working on real-time crop sensing, this will enable the crops to talk to the lights, ensuring we only create light the plants can use. Machine learning will rocket this technology forward and our facility is ready for this evolution today. The future is very exciting and I wonder just how efficiently we will grow crops indoors in future – a new agricultural revolution.” 

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