The Promise of Cloud for Horticulture and Indoor Cultivation

By Aloke Barua, Sr. Product Marketing Engineering, Microchip Technology Inc.

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Environmental monitoring is one of the most promising business cases for cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) services. These technologies can help ensure a stable indoor growing environment that can help boost localized cultivation of non-native crops such as fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs. By enabling efficient pre- and post-harvest management systems for horticulture and indoor cultivation applications, cloud-connected IoT networks fuel the birth and growth of a large-scale Controlled Environmental Agriculture (CEA) industry that is ethical, sustainable and ultimately profitable. By leveraging IoT sensors, these systems can not only continually measure and report environmental data, they also trigger actions or commands when required. However, ensuring the implementation of encryption and authentication technologies is critical to ensure the security of the systems. A deep understanding of best practices for specifying and deploying these systems will help growers ensure that hackers cannot take control to harm operations or steal valuable data.

Why Localized, Indoor Cultivation?

Before we learn about how to develop cloud-connected localized cultivation systems, let’s first understand the potential benefits of indoor cultivation. The three primary benefits include:  

  1. More Produce Availability
    Global demand for non-native fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs can be addressed more rapidly and efficiently when these crops are grown locally in that geography. While this may not make operations less carbon-intensive, it will help reduce food miles and promote food security since produce will no longer need to be transported long distances.  In addition, indoor cultivation can help ensure availability of a given food crop all year round, irrespective of erratic climatic conditions.
  2. Reduced Habitat Destruction
    While most attention is focused on land development and deforestation by the logging industry, the role of agriculture in habitat destruction is often overlooked. As per the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), “the Earth loses 18.7 million acres of forests per year” and “around 50 percent of the world’s habitable land has been converted to farming land.” Grazing and housing livestock, massive farming operations and growing vegetables and grains for human consumption require massive amounts of land. About a third of this is used for the production of livestock feed crops such as corn, barley, oats, sorghum and soya. There is evidence to show that farming techniques that consume vast amounts of land are unsustainable. An increase in CEA or indoor cultivation of non-grain crops could help address this to some extent.
  3. Healthier Diets
    Most medical evidence shows that while humans are omnivorous, a diet that is biased toward a mixture of plants, fruits and nuts with reduced meat consumption is most beneficial. As such a diet becomes more broadly accepted, it will result in significant reduction in the production of livestock feed. In turn, this will enable a fundamental shift to create a sustainable lifestyle for the global population. This will also help reduce livestock rearing, which also have a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the need for food transportation. Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that global livestock produces GHG emissions that represent 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic, or human-induced, GHG emissions.

Large-scale CEA and indoor cultivation are still in a nascent stage. Generally, indoor structures such as greenhouses are deployed across wide tracts of land. However, there is an emerging trend toward the construction of bespoke vertical farming structures. These include re-purposed factories or warehouses containing several floors. These structures allow for more efficient and pragmatic use of real estate and land for the growth of non-grain crops. Vertical farming also works well for raising poultry as a potentially more viable source of meat. 

To implement large-scale CEA and indoor cultivation, parameters such as heat, artificial lighting, humidity, soil moisture and, in the case of hydroponics/aeroponics, the water nutrients need to be monitored regularly to ensure that they mimic native conditions. In case of large scale operations where there are several buildings housing enclosed environments, one needs to ensure that each building is optimized for these growth conditions.  Cloud-connected sensors can help continually measure environmental condition levels over time and report data to a central monitoring station. 

Best Practices for System Deployment

The first step is to benchmark requirements by creating a log of the native or non-native outdoor conditions that can act as a guide to make the necessary environmental adjustments.  One needs to choose the type of network to deploy. With IoT becoming increasingly available, a network governed by a central hub or gateway that communicates with a local controller or computer can prove to be useful (see Figure 1). With the controller, data is uploaded to the cloud for further analytics. The cloud can either be proprietary or offered as a service by a cloud provider.

Typical implementation of an IoT ecosystem
Figure 1: Typical implementation of an IoT ecosystem

If grower deems it unnecessary to react instantaneously to sensor data, an acceptable timeframe for commands or actions can be issued via the cloud. In cases where minimal or zero latency, an edge controller can help speed   time from analytics to action. How accurately the environment is controlled influences the quality of crop growth.  

Both the back- and front-end sections of the edge computing implementation play an important role in optimizing crop production in the closed environment. While the edge computing and cloud computing elements reside in the back-end section, the front-end section houses the sensor network and gateway elements.  As the number of IoT implementations and use cases across various industries grows, we will see the emergence of an ecosystem of hardware suppliers and system integrators that can deliver all the elements required to support this solution architecture. The sensor network is an important element of this as it is positioned closest to the crop. It helps monitor the environment and harvest data for transmission to the gateway. Therefore, individual sensor nodes need to be simple, reliable, easy to service and must operate with very low power to extend battery life.  The must be able to communicate with the gateway and the cloud service provider through various wireless connectivity methods.

Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE) or the new 802.11ah low-power Wi-Fi® standard work well for this connectivity. This will allow the solutions to operate over unlicensed bands and communicate across the typical 10- to 100-meter (m) distances of indoor cultivation. The 802.11ah standard has the longest reach, up to 1 kilometer (km). BLE and 802.11ah Wi-Fi provide data rates of 10 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 10 Mbps and 50 Kbps – 100 Kbps, respectively. Thus, they provide ample bandwidth for the various parameter data that is being measured.

Given the competitive nature of the business, any leaked information that can help one supplier gain a competitive edge over another means higher revenue and profits. Therefore, it is essential to ensure the security of  sensor nodes. A hardware-based solution that can encrypt as well as authenticate both the data and the node is a good approach to secure the sensors. Firmware or software approaches might not be as effective.
For designers and manufacturers of sensor nodes, the priority will be to ensure that the finished system design is easy to use, modular and updatable. It should also have low-power operation, robust security, and the flexibility to support required wireless connectivity options. For the solution to be cloud-agnostic, it must be configured such that it can communicate with a propriety cloud with all the required capabilities.

 The Google Cloud IoT Core development platforms offered by Microchip Technology (see Figures 2 and 3) is a good example of this type of solution. By combining a microcontroller, secure element and fully certified Wi-Fi network controller, the development boards offer a simple and effective way to connect sensor nodes to Google’s Cloud IoT Core platform. To see light and temperature data, users can directly connect to Google Cloud, which is pre-provisioned with a free sandbox account, or virtual testing environment. Click™ boards from MikroElektronika that make it easy to add capabilities such as additional sensors to the design.

The AVR-IoT WG Development Board
Figure 2: The AVR-IoT WG Development Board features a powerful AVR® microcontroller (MCU), secure element and Wi-Fi network controller.
The PIC-IoT WG development board features an eXtreme
Figure 3: The PIC-IoT WG development board features an eXtreme Low-Power (XLP) PIC® MCU, secure element and Wi-Fi network controller.

A Better Way to Feed the Planet

Given that CEA and indoor cultivation can help create a significantly smaller geographic footprint as compared with traditional farming methods, they can help promote more secure, reliable and efficient global food production. However, enabling this requires the use of environmental monitoring technology that can ensure a stable indoor growing environment for non-native crops on a large scale. Among these, a sensor network that harvests and transmits environmental monitoring sensor data to and from the cloud for processing and analytics has the biggest role to play. With leading cloud providers proving rapid development solutions that meet these cloud processing needs, supporting a variety of CEA and indoor cultivation applications and use cases becomes easily possible. 

Glossary of Terms

Agriculture:  The science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool and other products. Primarily done on large areas of land. 

Horticulture: The science or practice of growing fruits, herbs, vegetables, nuts, ornamental plants and flowers.  It is generally classified as a subdivision of agriculture and has the same timeline for its history and development.  Unlike agriculture, horticulture is practiced on smaller, enclosed areas and usually involves a wide variety of crops whereas agriculture focuses on one main crop. Its financial viability on a large scale may require that it be focused on a single crop per enclosed structure, to minimize the difference in growth environments required per crop thereby reducing the complexity of the support infrastructure.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): A technology-based approach toward food production. The aim of CEA is to protect and maintain optimal growing conditions for a crop throughout its development. Production takes place within an enclosed growing structure such as a greenhouse or building. Plants are often grown using hydroponic methods in order to supply the proper amounts of water and nutrients to the root zone. CEA optimizes the use of resources such as water, energy, space, capital and labour. CEA technologies include hydroponics, aquaculture, and aquaponics. Controllable variables include: Temperature (air, nutrient solution, root-zone); humidity (%RH); carbon dioxide (CO2); light (intensity, spectrum, interval); nutrient concentration (parts per million, or PPM, and electrical conductivity, or EC); fertilizers; and nutrient pH (acidity). CEA facilities can range from fully automated greenhouses with computer controls for watering, lighting and ventilation, to low-tech solutions such as plastic film or coverings called cloches that are placed on field-grown crops, and plastic-covered tunnels.

Vertical Farming: The practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container, and controlling environmental factors using indoor farming techniques and CEA technology. Vertical farming techniques are often similar to greenhouses, augmenting natural sunlight with artificial lighting and metal reflectors.

The Cloud: A metaphor for the internet, the cloud stores information/data on physical or virtual servers that are maintained and controlled by a cloud computing provider such as Amazon with its AWS product, Microsoft® with Azure and Google with its Google Cloud Platform (GCP) service. 

Cloud Computing: The sharing of resources, software and information through a public, private or hybrid network so that companies can cut down on overhead costs by conducting the computer-related aspects of their business virtually. Appropriate for big data analytics and useful in applications where reaction time is not critical.

Edge Computing: The process of performing data processing at the edge of the network, near the source of the data, to reduce roundtrips to the cloud and associated latency or communications bandwidth. Edge computing is often used in industrial IoT (IIoT) applications that require instantaneous decision-making. Edge and cloud computing are complementary and, depending on the use case, can be used in conjunction with each other.

IoT:  The Internet of Things, at its very basic level, refers to the connection of everyday objects to the internet and to one another, including sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems. By combining these connected devices with automated systems, it is possible to harvest and analyse this information and invoke actions from it.