Vassilis G. Kaburlasos
Agricultural robotics has been a popular subject in recent years from an academic as well as a commercial point of view. This is because agricultural robotics addresses critical issues such as seasonal shortages in manual labor, e.g., during harvest, as well as the increasing concern regarding environmentally friendly practices. On one hand, several individual agricultural robots have already been developed for specific tasks (e.g., for monitoring, spraying, harvesting, transport, etc.) with varying degrees of effectiveness. On the other hand, the use of cooperative teams of agricultural robots in farming tasks is not as widespread; yet, it is an emerging trend. This paper presents a comprehensive overview of the work carried out so far in the area of cooperative agricultural robotics and identifies the state-of-the-art. This paper also outlines challenges to be addressed in fully automating agricultural production; the latter is promising for sustaining an increasingly vast human population, especially in cases of pandemics such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
The biggest industrial plant yet to suck tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the air came online yesterday in southwest Iceland. Direct air capture plants like this one have been hyped up lately by world leaders and giant corporations — notably Microsoft — that are looking to erase their legacy of greenhouse gas pollution.
This particular operation is ideally located to test theemerging technology. The new plant, built by Swiss company Climeworks, is powered by renewable energy from a geothermal power plant nearby. Climeworks also plans to lock the captured CO2 away in basalt rock formations just three kilometers from the geothermal plant. It’s a storage plan that likely bypasses the need for controversial new carbon dioxide...
LettUs Grow, an indoor farming technology provider from Bristol, have teamed up with the University of York, & Spark:York to create “Grow It York”: a vertical, community farm at the heart of a vibrant container park in Piccadilly, York. The container park, called Spark:York, is a Community Interest Company using shipping containers to provide spaces for local restaurants, retailers and entrepreneurs.
The farm forms part of theFixOurFood programme, a leading food systems research collaboration led by the University of York, funded for 5 years through the Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund. FixOurFood aims to transform Yorkshire food networks and develop regenerative systems that will create a fairer and more sustainable future for food production.
Grow It York is an indoor urban community farm in a shipping container, supplying hyper-local produce to the surrounding businesses and locals. It was built to investigate how vertical farming can play a role in creating positive changes within our food systems, while also benefiting our health, environment and economy.
The project’s mission is to prove that healthy food is about more than nutrition: “Our food must come from a healthy planet supporting biodiversity and vigorous ecosystems. It should enrich the communities where it is grown and eaten, and help local economies to thrive.”
LettUs Grow is supplying the vertical farming technology and their Growing Specialist, Billy Rodgers, is also providing on-site growing training. Billy said, “The Grow It York project has a really interesting range of teams involved. The collaboration between work in technology development, project feasibility research & real-world use of vertically farmed produce is important because food sustainability can’t be addressed by any one thing - you need to look at the whole food supply chain. It’s been really great being able to provide growing training for Grow It York. It’s exciting to see how projects like these can make learning about growing food more accessible to those in cities.”
LettUs Grow’s aeroponic technology is an eco-friendly method of growing crops indoors without soil, with less water and without the need for pesticides. The container farm will grow salad crops such as pea shoots, watercress, microgreens and herbs, which can also be prepared and eaten fresh at the restaurants within Spark:York.
CEO & co-founder of LettUs Grow, Charlie Guy, believes that projects like these are key to maximising the benefits of indoor growing: “It’s exciting to see indoor farming being utilised in this environment because the advantages of growing in such close proximity to consumers are so evidently visible. Whether that’s reducing food miles and food waste, or more holistic benefits such as getting people involved in and excited about growing food locally. Container park communities are a great way to demonstrate the impact of indoor farming on a smaller scale and they really emphasise the potential for this model to be translated across the country at different settings and scales.”
The University of York, through FixOurFood, is researching how hybrid businesses that prioritise social and environmental benefit (not just profit) can be encouraged in the food system. It will explore how these innovative businesses can help tackle the health, environment and economic challenges of how we produce, supply and eat food. This joint university-business community farm is the first of its kind, but there are plans to expand to other locations if the project is a success.
“It’s fantastic to be working with Spark:York and LettUs Grow on this project combining research with action - growing fresh produce for the variety of local restaurants, working with the local community and evaluating the impact of Grow It York. We hope to offer community slots for growing in the farm and are already working with eco and food groups in schools to design events around the farm. The indoor farm can grow produce all year round with the highly local supply chain promoting the local economy and less vulnerable to disruption from weather, pandemics, changes to international trade and so on,” said Professor Katherine Denby, project lead in FixOurFood.
Tom McKenzie Spark:York’s co-founder and Director said: "We’re extremely proud to be working with LettUs Grow and the University of York on this. It represents an exciting step forward for our project, and the first time any form of vertical growing has been trialled in York city centre. We feel this setting is perfect, with such a focus on local and independent food producers at Spark:York.
It’s brilliant to see our chefs already starting to use this amazing produce. The interest from members of the public visiting the venue has already been huge, and we hope we can use the opportunity to shout about the significant environmental benefits that this method of agriculture can bring. We’re hoping the local community can become heavily involved in the running and activities in the farm, and end up seeing this as an asset to be explored and enjoyed."
The farm is open to the public, who can visit to see produce growing. The site is open 12 -11pm Tuesday to Saturday. Those who want to taste the vertically farmed produce, can pick up a free salad bag from the Spark York’s General Store at Unit 3 on Thursday mornings from 9.30 - 11 am and Saturdays from 8.30 - 10 am (or until the stock has gone).
Vapor Pressure Deficit, also known as VPD is a very useful tool for growers. However it is a variable growers sometimes forget, do not know about its existence or do not understand. VPD is a variable related to humidity. Humidity in growing systems can be expressed as: Relative humidity, one of the most common variables […]
This post covers water treatment options, and was written by C. Dayboll with input from Phytoserv and Soil Resource Group.
Water Treatment Guide for Greenhouses and Nurseries
If you don’t currently treat your water it may be time to seriously consider a treatment system. Along with sourcing pathogen-free cuttings, making sure your water source and water-holding tanks are problem free, and practicing good sanitation in your greenhouse, water treatment to reduce pathogen loads is an important step to reducing loses from fungal and bacterial diseases.
Looking into water treatment technologies can be overwhelming, though, as there are many options out there and you need to consider your operation specifics. Add in the initial and ongoing costs, and the decision can be a complex one.
A few years ago, our friends at Flowers Canada Ontario (FCO) and the Soil Resource Group (SRG) came up with a guidance document to assist growers in choosing water treatment systems. It covers why you might want to treat your water and which systems are best for common problems like sediment, fungi, viral or bacterial issues. It also addresses costs, installation, space requirements and maintenance considerations.
In this post, we have identified things to consider before moving forward with an installation and given information about four commonly chosen water treatment options for consideration. For more information, please check out the guidance document or contact the authors or a water treatment specialist.
Considering these parameters for your farm, you might need a fairly simple solution or something more complex. Here are four commonly chosen options for greenhouse use, and some considerations to keep in mind. It’s important to note that they are not the only solutions, and that some farms may benefit from several different ways to treat their water in series because of their crops, setup or disease pressure.
Before getting started on an installation, there are many aspects to consider:
What is the size of your operation? Do you have any future plans for expansion? How do your production cycles work? Do you have heavy seasons, or fairly predictable week-to-week production? What’s your water source? Does your irrigation water come from a well, city or do you collect rainwater? Does the source change over the year? Do you blend water sources? What’s the water quality, and what is the volume you need to treat? Does it have sediment, or have you had disease issues? What types of crops do you grow? Sensitive varieties might require more vigorous treatment What’s your budget? What costs can you handle for up front installation and ongoing maintenance? How much maintenance can you handle? Is your ideal system a set-it-and-forget-it solution, or will it have downtime or need to be calibrated on a regular basis?
Ultraviolet Light (UV)
How it works: Damages DNA of pathogens and prevents reproduction by exposing them to UV radiation.
Type: Physical Capital Cost: High Operational Cost: Low Footprint: Small
Requires clear and colourless water to work optimally, so water with high turbidity, sediment or colour will need a pre-treatment (like filters or a constructed wetland)
Good choice for pathogen removal, especially in sensitive crops
Good choice for growers managing high volumes of irrigation water
Allows retention of nutrients if recirculating water
Costly, especially if the volume of water warrants several units
How it works: Splits ozone particles into oxygen and a free radical which destroys pathogen cell membranes.
Type: Chemical Capital Cost: High Operational Cost: Moderate Footprint: Moderate
Like UV, water may pre-treatment to reduce turbidity, sediment, etc.. It can react with compounds in the water which can reduce efficiency.
Removes fungi, bacteria and viruses, and breaks down organic chemicals such as pesticides or PGRs
Controls biofilm if used properly
Ozone itself is very unstable and must be generated on-site.
Can add oxygen to the water which can improve root health
Costly, especially if the volume of water warrants several units
Electro-Chemical Activation (ECA)
How it works: Passing a salt solution (generally potassium chloride, KCl) through an electrical current creates chlorine gas which dissolves into the water forming compounds which are antimicrobial.
Type: Chemical Capital Cost: Moderate Operational Cost: Moderate Footprint: Moderate
Requires a product (KCl) to run which must be purchased to create your own treatment solution (low cost, but an ongoing one)
Getting the right amount of active ingredient is a learning process, and it takes some optimization to get it right. Too much can result in phytotoxicity, too little doesn’t control pathogens. Regular water tests can help to see if it is working properly.
Good pathogen control if monitored and maintained
Controls biofilm if used properly
May not be the best solution for chlorine-sensitive crops (buildup of ions (K and Cl) must be managed)
Can be injected at multiple sites (e.g., at cloth filter before it goes into feedwater storage tanks, or as water goes out to crop)
Moderately costly to install
Woodchip Bioreactors and Hybrid Treatment Systems (HTS)
How they work: The woodchip cell creates an environment with no free oxygen so beneficial microbes can degrade unwanted compounds (nitrate-nitrogen, and fungal pathogens). Additional compounds may also be removed, including pesticides and plant growth regulators. In an HTS, the woodchip cell is followed by mineral media cells to remove other compounds such as phosphorus. Media can be specific to meet the growing operations’ requirements.
Hybrid Treatment System: Type: Biological/Chemical/Physical Capital Cost: High Operational Cost: Low Footprint: High
Can remove nutrients and fungal pathogens from water, as well as some pesticides and PGRs
Water quality is suitable for irrigation but can have high bicarbonates and should be blended with fresh nutrient solution if used on sensitive crops.
Can handle seasonal water fluctuations.
Maintenance is fairly simple. Woodchips will need to be replaced as they degrade, but they have a lifespan of many years if the system is operated properly.
HTS needs space for an in-ground system outside of the greenhouse, but can be installed under a growing area (machine traffic should be avoided)
For more information, check out these factsheets on hybrid treatment systems and biofilters. An article on using membrane filters, heat pasteurization and other filtration/treatment techniques by our colleague Dr. Fadi Al-Daoud can be found here.