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Smart micro growth chambers to drive indoor farming revolution

Smart micro growth chambers to drive indoor farming revolution

In the future, techniques such as indoor farming could revolutionise the production of certain crops. The ability to produce multiple harvests per season, without the risks of damage and reduced yields from pests and diseases, and with minimal space requirements could completely change food production and nutrition in many areas of the globe.

However, while a number of indoor farms are now operating commercially, at the moment the range of crops produced is limited and there are many questions about the environmental footprint and the best agronomic conditions (light spectrum and intensity, temperature, nutrition, etc.) for different crops. In order to provide this rapidly growing sector with the tools to assess optimum growth conditions for different plants, UK Research & Innovation’s (UKRI) Transforming Food Production (TFP) Challenge has awarded £447,000 to the Advanced Growth Chamber for the Rapid Optimisation of Vertical Farming Systems (AGROVerSe) project.

The Grobotic Systems vision of multiple plant growth chambers carrying out simultaneous experiments under different wavelengths of light.

This collaboration between agri-tech company Grobotic Systems Ltd, photonic research specialists Fraunhofer UK, horticultural specialist Stockbridge Technology Centre, and plant scientists at the University of Sheffield, is developing small-scale, low-cost ‘smart’ growth chambers for conducting quick and easy trials to determine the best ‘recipes’ for crop growth under controlled environmental conditions.

“Traditionally growth cabinets are very large chambers, about the size of a refrigerator or bigger, which use standard compressor-based refrigeration systems for heating and cooling,” explains Dr Alexis Moschopoulos, Managing Director of Grobotic Systems. “Most use fluorescent lights, although some systems are moving towards LEDs, and most are difficult to control. They are also very expensive, with a top-of-the-range 1.5 m sq. chamber costing up to £50,000.”

Grobotic Systems was established by plant geneticist Alexis and his business partner; electronics engineer Richard Banks, to produce small, lower cost plant growth chambers with features such as thermo-electric cooling, a colour-tuneable LED, and internet-connected environmental sensors and cameras. “You have a much more compact, Internet-connected, and personal plant growth chamber that you can put under your desk or on a lab bench and a range of sensors collecting data, so you don’t have to take the plants out to take pictures or measurements; our system lets the user automate data collection.”

Andrew Merson, mechanical engineer, 3D printing a component for the latest Grobotic Systems plant growth chamber.

At a UKRI-organised networking event in Birmingham, Alexis met Henry Bookey of the Fraunhofer UK Centre for Applied Photonics, and the benefits of using multi-spectral imaging in the growth chambers was discussed. From these beginnings the AGROVerSe consortium was put together, with Stockbridge Technology Centre bringing its knowledge of novel and indoor farming systems, and Dr Stephen Rolfe of Sheffield University adding his expertise on crop phenotyping.

“We’re developing the multi-band imaging sensing camera system that can simultaneously and rapidly look at different bands of the spectrum and then use this to assess the plants in the chamber,” explains Henry. “Steve’s phenotyping knowledge highlights the wavebands which are of most interest in terms of assessing the plants, and we’re building a system to meet the requirements in terms of assessing plant health and plant attributes, so that in turn these can be used to predict factors such as quality and flavour.”

“People are growing plants indoors, but there isn’t a simple tool to help growers or agronomists identify precise plant growth recipes to optimise yield and crop quality,” adds Alexis. “There is research on different light spectra, and it is known for example that different colours of light can affect basil flavour or the chemical expression of medicinal compounds in plants, but there is no all-in-one tool which combines both the environmental control and data collection in one.”

Gareth Coleman, software developer, configuring a high definition camera for the latest Grobotic Systems plant growth chamber.

Stephen Rolfe adds, “The low cost and flexibility of these chambers allows varied growth conditions to be compared systematically – something that is very difficult with traditional systems.”

The TFP grant from UKRI was awarded in February 2019, with the project formally beginning on 1 April. “The grant has been incredibly helpful in letting us collaborate with institutions,” says Alexis. “It also allows us to build our team by attracting experts in key fields, so the pace of development has been greatly increased. We are incredibly grateful. It’s been life-changing. By the end of the grant period we will have an ‘optimised prototype’ of the full chamber with the advanced environmental control system, including a colour-tuneable LED lighting array and the hyperspectral camera.”

However, as Henry Bookey points out, UKRI and InnovateUK were also instrumental in the AGROVerSe project’s inception. “Without the brokerage event this is not something we would have been involved in,” he stresses. “This grant has allowed Fraunhofer to enter a new market: this is our first agri-tech project, although we’ve had projects in most other sectors. Hopefully this will open the door to other opportunities such as optical sensing systems for drones and satellite systems for monitoring vegetation, so this project is really good for us.”

Dr Alexis Moschopoulos, managing director at Grobotic Systems, observing experimental basil plants in the latest Grobotic Systems plant growth chamber.

AGROVerSe differs from some other projects under the TFP umbrella as it is not looking to develop technology which will be used to grow food directly, but will be used by farmers, growers and food producers to optimise their food production. However, as Katrina Hayter, ISCF Challenge Director for Transforming Food Production explains, “The TFP Challenge is about helping the industry create and adopt new technology which will make food production more resilient, more productive, and more efficient. In essence it’s about pulling the best ideas from our world-class research base to build the industries of tomorrow, and the AGROVerSe offer perfectly fits this brief.”