Non Technical Summary
More than ever before, we have the tools to measure and identify historical trends. With this information, we can predict the future of food security, and the outlook is dire. The data suggests that traditional methods of farming are wearing on the ecosystem, the U.S. economy, and our health. Armed with a forward-looking mindset and technological advances, we will be able to develop healthier, more sustainable methods for food production. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is gaining popularity, but its economics are still dif?cult. Better use of automation technology may help close the gap and bring with it the numerous other bene?ts CEA has to offer. Together, these methods can reduce costs for the production and shipping of fresh produce, reduce the impact of traditional farming methods on the environment, and increase access to whole foods in urban food deserts. In this Phase I research project, Vecna proposes to introduce an innovative pallet-based growing solution that lends itself to robotic automation in order to help address food security, labor issues, climate change, environmental issues, and access to wholesome food in poor urban areas.We anticipate that the project will result in a modular, low-cost farming system that can be easily placed in any building or vacant lot that has suf?cient access to electricity. For certain crops and seasons, this system should produce a higher-quality product for the local market at overall lower costs than traditional farming methods. In addition, urban municipalities, and even governmental (e.g., U.S. Army) or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may implement such a system for areas impacted by con?ict, extreme weather, and the migration of refugees. The speci?cations for this design will be published as open-source speci?cations, hopefully leading to emerging standards of interoperability for the whole industry.According to the USDA, 13.5 million people live in what is de?ned as a food desert, with the majority - 82% - living in urban areas. In the absence of better options, low income families living in food deserts rely on fast food or convenience stores, with options limited to processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Their children are more likely to develop obesity and diabetes, which together account for $395 billion in medical costs and lost productivity annually. The population of urban centers is increasing; feeding a world population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 will require an overall increase in food production by 70% between 2007 and 2050. Concurrently, pesticides and fertilizers are threatening conservation efforts and stressing pollinators critical to crop production. Ongoing drought on the West Coast is calling into question the long-term viability of reliable food production from that region using conventional farming approaches. In addition, labor, transportation, and crop loss add signi?cant cost to food production. Indoor farming has been shown to work technically, but its economics are still dif?cult. The world needs a reliable, scalable, sustainable, and economically feasible approach to continuous food production.InnovationGrowing high-quality food economically in a controlled environment near the point of consumption will address many of the aforementioned challenges. For the past decade, Vecna has experimented with indoor, urban farming techniques. During construction, we needed to move an aquaponic system, which required removing the plants, and fully draining and disassembling the system. In doing so, Vecna's robotic logistics solutions team had an innovative idea: to develop a self-contained, pallet-based aquaponics system that could be automatically moved by pallet-handling robots to yield robust on-demand production of healthy food. Automation and hydroponics can be combined to result in indoor farms that take advantage of under-utilized urban structures, housing multiple tiers of pallets planted with a wide variety of food-bearing plants. The Phase I work will focus narrowly on the economic and agricultural feasibility of the pallet-based growing system, with expertise provided from our University of Connecticut collaborators. Phase II work would then leverage Vecna robots to create an "Amazon™"-style system where automated pallet handling equipment would allow for maximum crop density and bring the crop to the worker, saving signi?cant time and resources.ImpactBy creating an on-demand supply chain of farm-fresh produce in underserved areas year round, the health of a community can improve dramatically and, ultimately, help turn the tide on devastating chronic illnesses attributed to processed foods high in fat and sugar. Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) allows the farmer to control many key environmental factors, signi?cantly reducing crop loss. This model allows farmers to produce the crops in the volume of immediate market demand, rather than trying to predict and satisfy future market conditions. Because it relies on regulated lighting, natural fertilizer, and a recycled water supply, such a system can provide a year-round yield of a variety of just-picked fruits and vegetables and ?sh without the sometimes damaging effects of traditional farming to the ecosystem.This application addresses ?ve out of six National Challenge Areas.Food Security: Robotic cultivation and harvesting can boost food production by enabling sustainable, indoor, multi-level production facilities. These facilities can be introduced into urban food deserts, increasing accessibility to culturally-relevant, fresh, whole foods to vulnerable populations.Climate Variability and Change: Indoor hydroponic systems require less water and can use recycled nutrient-rich water. Agricultural producers and natural resource managers can remain resilient in the face of climate change by reducing their water use by 70%. More importantly, these multi-level CEA farms can be introduced directly into urban environments, reducing the carbon footprint traditionally required to distribute fresh produce from the farm to the consumer.Childhood Obesity: Making affordable, healthy, high-quality vegetables and proteins readily available to any community--including urban and rural food deserts--will reduce the prevalence of food deserts and increase access to fresh, healthy, culturally relevant food, combating obesity among children and adolescents.Food Safety: Plants grown within indoor hydroponic systems do not require heavy use of pesticides or herbicides. By virtue of growing produce in controlled indoor environments, the agricultural production system is protected from diseases and pests. This improves food safety for the consumer. In addition, the growboxes can be taken directly to farmers' markets, delivering produce from the vine directly to the hands of the consumer. This both ensures the food is fresh, with minimal opportunity for contamination, and reduces the need to optimize crops for transport, instead allowing optimization of ?avor, texture, and nutritional value of the product.Water: Indoor hydroponic production vending farms will conserve and reuse water, without substantial chemical use or runoff.
Animal Health Component
Research Effort Categories
Goals / Objectives
The objectives of this project are to:1. develop a robust stackable farming system based on standard pallet dimensions2. accurately measure energy, water, and food/nutrient consumption and cost3. optimize the design for the most effcient production of specifc crops4. prove the economic feasibility of the systemThe primary technical objectives in this Phase I feasibility study are:1. Design and prototype a growbox concept. Determine stackability and ensure safety.2. Implement prototype systems for water, light, and ventilation with appropriate sensors for each and test for appropriate function.3. Accurately measure energy, water, nutrient consumption, and cost.4. Do a labor study estimating the amount of time it would take to plant, tend, and harvest using this system.5. Model the economic feasibility of the system based on the total costs to run, plus up-front costs amortized over an appropriate period combined with data from market research.6. Do preliminary optimization for efficient production of each of three to five specific crops to be chosen based on favorable market economics (main effort in Phase II).7. If there is sufcient time, run simulations of the robotic retrieval system to determine potential layouts and throughput estimates.The anticipated results of the can be quickly deployed anywhere in the world in any climate that will create new options and security for both the federal government and the commercial sector.
Work PlanController: The prototype control system will be implemented around an aqua controller system that we have used in existing systems. It will support all the requirements of this research, including web-based control and live web-based video. Project sponsors will be able to see the current status of the plants in the growbed any time 24/7 once the system is set up. They will also be able to monitor and control all the inputs to the system, including temperature sensors for both air and nutrient solution, humidity, CO2 content, light sensors, reservoir levels, pH, TDS, ORP, doping pumps for pH-up and pH-down, nutrient solution, controls for the lights, and the main pump that takes the nutrient solution to the grow beds.Growing Medium: Determining the best approach will be a key focus of the Phase I research. Mediumless approaches such as aeroponics or nutrient ?lm technique (NFT), or even mediumless ebb and ?ow, have advantages such as not requiring a growing medium (aside from the starter plug). But these approaches may require expertise and regular maintenance to achieve reliability and stability of the system. Mediumless approaches also may require more ongoing energy costs as nutrient solution is pumped more often. Vecna to date has found that an expanded clay pellet medium with an ebb and ?ow approach with periodic washdown has produced robust results even in the face of power losses and other hardware issues. For example, the PI was running an expanded clay pellet ebb and ?ow system and an aeroponics system, then left for a long weekend. Upon return he discovered that a circuit breaker had tripped: the plants in the aeroponics system were completely dead, while those in the ebb and ?ow system only showed slight wilting. Over time the aeroponics system experienced more and more dif?culties with nozzle clogging, and as the maintenance effort mounted, the system was eventually abandoned. Another advantage to mediumless approaches is the relative ease with which individual plants can be moved. For example, plants can be started in a tight spacing, then spread out as they grow, making better use of available space and light. With clay pellets, moving individual plants is not practical due to root damage, hence the alternatives are to either plant at the anticipated mature plant spacing, or to overplant and then thin, selling the thinned plants as baby-greens for example. Since the goal is to use vertical space as ef?ciently as possible, the optimal depth of grow medium will be explored. In a preliminary test, Vecna has found that depths of less than two inches maybe feasible.Water and Electricity Connections: A key objective of the work plan will be to explore the various options for robust water and electricity delivery. The longterm desire is for "blind mate" power and water connections to be made automatically between stacked pallets as the top pallet drops into place. While gravity easily pulls water down through the stack and does not require any tight ?ttings, pushing the water up is another matter. In Phase I, we anticipate that a hose will connect manually from the bottom pallet (or another source) to the top pallet for water delivery. Meanwhile, other options will be explored in parallel that do not require manually attaching the hose. Similarly for electricity, each pallet will be plugged in individually to start. Vecna has extensive experience designing blind-mate power connectors and will incorporate those into later versions. We provide a preliminary design of the water and electricity connections in Figures 3(b) and 3(c). The longterm goal will be a design in which a robotic pallet truck can simply take a pallet off a stack or add a new one on, and all connections are made robustly without any manual intervention.Light Optimization: Vecna has been working on projects to characterize the light output of LEDs and the light consumption of various crops. This work will continue as part of this research project in order to optimize energy usage and growth in the system. Vecna has high-precision power supplies, spectrometers, and lux meters to carry out this work, and Professors Yang and McAvoy will provide expert advice on experimental design. Ultimately, determining the ideal light mixture per crop, taking into account other environmental factors such as CO2 ppm, temperature, humidity, nutrient availability, and plant maturity, will enable us to catalog "recipes" for ideal plant growth. These recipes should be shared through something like the Open Ag Data Alliance.Testing: For Phase I of this project, we intend to use the plant diagnostic services at the Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst extension. We will send a sample each week to the laboratory to verify the health of the plants and the absence of pathogens from the water. The plant pathologists will provide diagnosis and advice on the design of the environment given the samples.