Source: VECNA TECHNOLOGIES, INC. submitted to
Sponsoring Institution
National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Project Status
Funding Source
Reporting Frequency
Accession No.
Grant No.
Project No.
Proposal No.
Multistate No.
Program Code
Project Start Date
Sep 1, 2017
Project End Date
Feb 28, 2018
Grant Year
Project Director
Theobald, D.
Recipient Organization
Performing Department
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

Knowledge Area (KA)Subject of Investigation (SOI)Field of Science (FOS)Percent
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.
Project Methods
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.

Progress 09/01/17 to 02/28/18

Target Audience: Nothing Reported Changes/Problems: Nothing Reported What opportunities for training and professional development has the project provided? Nothing Reported How have the results been disseminated to communities of interest? Nothing Reported What do you plan to do during the next reporting period to accomplish the goals? Nothing Reported

What was accomplished under these goals? This project stems from the need for a robust, low-cost, transportable system so that it can be shipped to and set up in any location. Due to its self-contained, shippable, stackable, and modular design, the proposed growbox will allow a hydroponics system to scale up using a facility's vertical space without using fixed infrastructure. Lack of fresh, year-round produce contributes to illness for the 13.5 million Americans who in live "food deserts". Growing urban produce is possible using controlled environment agriculture (CEA), including greenhouses and artificially lighted "plant factories," but has been difficult to do affordably and flexibly. In Phase I, the team sought to study feasibility of growing crops in shippable containers that would be moved through the planting, growing, harvesting cycle by off-the-shelf material-handling robots. These pallet and sub-pallet-sized containers can be used in greenhouses, outdoors, indoors, single-layered, or stacked. This approach eliminates the need for expensive and inflexible infrastructure currently used by hydroponic growers. Results showed that using autonomous material-handling robots was feasible and confirmed that it is possible to create a low-energy system that optimizes farming in a small amount of space. The method can also be used (even without robotics) in non-commercial settings, allowing those with little space available to maximize food production indoors or out. (1) Develop a robust stackable farming system based on standard pallet dimensions The team designed and prototyped various versions of the pallet-size growbox and implemented prototype systems for water, light, and ventilation with appropriate sensors for each, testing them for appropriate function. In Phase I, the team initially used commercial off-the-shelf rotomolded plastic pallets because they are durable, affordable, lightweight, and conform to industry standards for shipping. After adapting the pallets, the team designed pallets to optimal specifications, including inputs and outputs for ventilation, pumps, and power. The team also designed the growbox to be able to house LEDs and/or harvest natural light. The prototype growbox houses the growbeds and channels nutrient solution to the roots. Growbeds hold crops and growth media and are small enough for manual handling. The current system that recycles the nutrient solution consists of a low-energy pump submersed in the water just below the crates inside the main box or coming from another growbox connect horizontally or vertically. The water, with added nutrients, is pumped through a system of channels throughout the entire unit. The growboxes can be both connected horizontally in grids or stacked, with robust, blind-mate connections for power and water that have been designed to keep costs low and work reliably. The team started with expensive blind mate water connectors but found that they didn't gracefully handle the tolerances and rough handling of forklifts and were significantly over-specified for the low water pressures needed in this application. (2) Accurately measure energy, water, and food/nutrient consumption and cost Unlike greenhouse operations, the control and data acquisition systems are independent for each individual growbox, and therefore must be simple, low cost, effective, and remotely accessible. The controller monitors and controls the complete environmental conditions, including light, temperature, relative humidity, and CO2 concentration inside the growbox and monitors some environmental conditions outside the growbox. For the hydroponic operation, a nutrient controller hub was employed to continuously monitor and regulate the properties of the nutrient solution. The actual water use was measured using a weighing lysimeter installed under the solution reservoir. Traditional destructive method and image recording are used to quantify the plant growth data (leaf area, fresh mass, and dry mass). The UCONN group grew microgreens and followed greenhouse production schedule of 16 hours of lighting period and 8 hours of darkness. For the whole growing period, energy use was quantified in terms of electricity use by LED lights, supplemental heating (if needed), a ventilation fan, hydroponic equipment, and measuring and controlling devices. The total electricity use for each growbox unit was then calculated and normalized by the total production to get the energy demand for producing a unit amount of produce. By measuring the temperature and humidity inside and outside each growbox, the loadings of energy and moisture from inside of growbox to outside were obtained from the difference between the state variables and the ventilation rate. UCONN developed a dynamic model for simulating the energy and water transport processes within the growbox environment. The model was built based on physical and physiological relationships for lettuce production in controlled environments and is designed for conducting comparison studies on energy and water use as well as vegetable production between the two systems. The simulation studies using the model indicate that the growbox system saves more energy in winter, compared to traditional greenhouses. Results show the growbox concept works as proposed. The environmental control is effective and sufficient to provide the needed microclimate for plants to grow, and the plants have normal response to the growbox environment. The energy use by the protocol growbox is less than that by a traditional greenhouse in winter at Connecticut mainly because it does not need supplemental heating. The energy from the LED lights is sufficient to keep the inside temperature in a desirable range. (3) Optimize the design for the most efficient production of specific crops The Phase I research was successful in showing that farming in pallet and smaller unit sizes can be practical cost effective and yields numerous benefits for appropriate high value crops. A mixture of compatible crops (arugula, green leaf, red leaf, and multiblond lettuces) was chosen, as they have short growing cycles and can be combined into a "baby lettuce mix" which produce a highly saleable product. Tighter packing of plants on the grow floor (whether indoors or outdoors) or on vertical shelving provides much higher density of vegetative growth per square meter of space. When growing in fields, rows are generally needed for equipment and workers to reach and access the plants. In the pallet-based farming approach, plants can be packed densely while growing and pulled out and brought to workers when in need of attention or harvesting. The team performed initial simulations of the robotic growbox retrieval system, using tools developed for robotic warehouse management, to investigate layouts and throughput estimates, with results supporting feasibility. (4) Prove the economic feasibility of the system For economic feasibility estimate of the setup costs plus the amount of time it took to plant, tend, and harvest using this system, the team adopted real-world labor estimates from our farmer partner who already has automated but fixed infrastructure system. Other aspects of the proposed CEA system, e.g.continuous cropping under natural light, automated movement of mobile crop containers, have already been commercially validated by the success of the farmer partner. The proposed growbox system would require essentially the same number of people to run the system, as the actual growing process is similar, but with potentially higher output due to better centralized management and with lower initial costs from the use of infrastructure-free robotics. Labor will be minimal, primarily needed for monitoring and dealing with any system problems should they occur. If the system is running well, little if any human involvement will be needed; remote system monitoring, and control can typically address most of the issues.