Over the past few decades, farming has been subject to numerous rapid technological advances. Today, traditional farmers and indoor growers alike employ an array of technologies to help their farms grow more efficiently.
All of these tools fall under the umbrella term of “Agriculture Technology,” better known as AgTech, defined simply as the application of technology to farming. Spanning every step of production—from seed to store—AgTech contributes to seed genomics, soil health, machinery, and supply chain management, among other processes.
What are the latest technologies used in agriculture today?
Examples of AgTech in action can be found in a variety of farming environments across the country. On large farming operations, “walking the fields” has been replaced with drones that are used to scout, map, and survey huge swaths of farmland. Equipped with advanced cameras that use sensors to detect things like moisture content and plant health, these drones can help survey future growing sites, as well as report back to farmers on areas of the farm that may need more attention.
On the ground level, the internet of things (IoT) has enabled a huge class of internet-enabled sensors that can report soil conditions in realtime back to farmers by utilizing sensors that are placed in the ground. These sensors, which look like fancy tent stakes, can measure and record things like temperature, humidity, and pH, giving farmers a heads up to soil conditions that may need to be remedied to ensure a healthy crop.
When it comes time to harvest, some farmers are enjoying the same advancements as Tesla owners: autonomous driving. Today, farm equipment companies like John Deere offer a fleet of fully autonomous combine harvesters that can traverse huge fields of corn, soybeans, and other high volume crops entirely on their own. Relying on advanced sensor and data collection technologies, these automated harvesting systems can take into account crop health and crop variations to determine both the best time to harvest and the optimal method of harvesting, depending on the type of crop under consideration.
Bringing Technology Indoors: The Bowery Farming Approach
Variations of these precision agriculture technologies are also hard at work within the framework of Bowery’s indoor vertical farms, which are powered by our proprietary operating system, the BoweryOS. The BoweryOS acts as the central nervous system of every one of our farms. It receives information and data through external “appendages” or hardware, makes decisions based on that information, and directs mechanical processes based on those decisions. This integration of hardware, sensors, computer vision, machine learning, and software is what powers each Bowery farm’s ability to grow continuously and harvest efficiently.
Did we lose you? Stay with us, we’ll break this down in greater detail below.
How AgTech Solutions Unlock Scale for Bowery
If you walk the endless aisles of a Bowery indoor vertical farm, you might wonder, how could people possibly attend to each and every plant in here? Good question: we’d need a lot of people to make that happen.
A fleet of sensors and cameras stationed ubiquitously around the farm act as the eyes and ears for our plants. From the second a seed is planted, through its growth journey, and until it’s harvested, these surveillance tools keep a close watch while also keeping track of farm conditions such as light intensity, humidity, temperature, and nutrient levels. All of this hardware ingests and shares data back to the BoweryOS, which determines the correct course of action if anything is out of balance.
Beyond monitoring plant health, these sensors and cameras also help Bowery create special farming conditions unique to indoor growing environments. Because not all plants are the same, different types of leafy greens grow best in different conditions. Some like it hot, as they say, while others prefer to keep it cool. Working in tandem with the BoweryOS, sensors in these specialized growing chambers respond to which crops enter specific zones. Then they work to keep those conditions within a tight range essential for creating the best tasting greens possible.
The BoweryOS: Connecting All Processes Together
The magic of AgTech at Bowery is the convergence of hardware and software to autonomously create precise farming conditions. The data collected by our sensors and computer vision systems feeds back into the BoweryOS’s machine learning algorithms, which interpret that data in real time, assess plant health and farm conditions, and make course corrections as necessary. Those corrections are then carried out on the plant level by hardware positioned in our grow room.
As our farms evolve, this hardware is becoming increasingly roboticized to allow for a fully autonomous growing cycle in the future. Looking at this growing cycle is a good way to visualize the way that hardware and software work together to grow great tasting greens at scale.
The Bowery Growing Cycle: How Technology Leads the Way
Everyday, the BoweryOS tells our team of Modern Farmers which crops are due for harvest, and which ones should begin their growing journey. The goal is to keep happy plants moving throughout the farm 24/7.
Step 1: Seeding
At the start of a plant’s life, a Modern Farmer receives a task from the BoweryOS to prepare a specific crop for germination.
The process is simple; the Modern Farmer selects the right cultivar on a machine interface, pours the seeds into the drum, and hits go. The BoweryOS is communicating with the machine, letting it know how many flats (see picture below) to prepare and how many seeds to include based on a specific crop’s growing preferences.
The Modern Farmer monitors this entire process, labeling each flat with a bespoke QR code. When they scan this code, a seed becomes traceable in a Bowery farm for the first time.
Step 2: Germination
The seeded flats are then moved into a germination chamber, where they remain for several days (each cultivar has a varied schedule based on historic preferences in a Bowery farm). When they’ve passed the germination phase, our Modern Farmers receive a handy notification from the BoweryOS once again: it’s time to move those plants into the grow room!
Step 3: Finding a Home in the Grow Room
An automated conveyor belt retrieves the germinated flats from the germination chamber and moves them into the grow room. This is a tetris-like challenge for the BoweryOS to figure out.
Here’s why: imagine a system of stacks with hundreds of plants needing to move out for harvest, and hundreds more needing to move in on a given day. To further complicate this moving schedule, the BoweryOS must also consider which conditions that cultivar needs in order to thrive. Perhaps, for example, it’s learned that a specific zone in the grow room has a higher humidity level, making it ideal for arugula. The BoweryOS’s ability to synthesize billions of data points from previous growing cycles helps it find the right home for each and every tray of crops.
Step 4: Time to Grow Up
Once a crop is situated in the grow room, this is where the true helicopter parenting begins. Every crop is monitored 24/7 by the sensors and cameras we mentioned earlier. This hardware feeds information back to the BoweryOS, giving it updates on whether things are going well or awry.
For example, all plants have different light schedules, but no matter what, they all need some time in the dark to sleep. Our software knows which type of crop is growing in a specific position, and can therefore keep our LED lights on the right schedule. It can also see if something goes wrong. For example, if a light is off longer than usual and a crop looks like it’s behind, the BoweryOS picks this up through computer vision and lets our Modern Farmers know when to check things out.
Similarly, without a tech-enabled irrigation system, we wouldn’t be able to feed the plants efficiently. All of our water is brought in from the municipal water supply and then filtered multiple times to ensure no contaminants are present. From there, the water is enriched with specific nutrients to help the plants grow. The BoweryOS knows the right nutrient mix and water schedule for each and every cultivar, administering the right schedule to each tray of crops in the grow room.
Step 5: Harvest Ready
The BoweryOS gives Modern Farmers a green light when crops are ready to be picked. This initiates the movement of lush trays from the grow room to the harvesting station, where they’re scanned once again. From there, crops are auto-harvested and packed by Modern Farmers.
When boxes are prepared to go off to local retailers, the BoweryOS bids adieu to our greens with a farewell scan, which lets us know which crops are off to each store.
Why does AgTech Matter?
AgTech is driving innovation throughout the supply chain, but it’s not just for show. We believe this is essential for creating a more sustainable farming approach that can meet the challenges ahead of us, as well as impart a safer, more transparent food system.
Outside of Bowery’s indoor vertical farm, others are putting AgTech to use in meaningful ways as well. California Safe Soils is an AgTech supermarket that looks to convert food waste into fertilizer by collecting uneaten produce from supermarkets and converting it into low-cost liquid fertilizer designed to rehabilitate malnourished soils. On a larger scale, tech giant IBM has created the IBM Food Trust, a blockchain solution designed to meet “unprecedented demand for a smarter, safer food supply” and bring real-time transparency to the world’s largest food suppliers, producers, and retailers.
As the AgTech industry evolves to incorporate increasingly adaptable hardware and software integrations, the rise of artificial intelligence is poised to make these systems smarter, more reliable, and more autonomous.