Data-Driven Cultivation: Crunching The Numbers In The Grow Room

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November 23, 2020

Modern cultivation facilities are using future farming techniques that are driven by data! Novel digital technologies are helping farmers and home gardeners make smarter decisions and prevent expensive critical failures. From microclimate sensing to machine intelligence tools, this article will explore fresh technology being used in 2020.

The overall goal of data-driven cultivation is to understand the users’ needs and crop requirements. Data should allow for the continuous improvement of production processes alongside the ability to improve yields, optimize the quality of produce, and prevent costly crop losses.

Tech Terms

Data, IoT, AI, MEMS – There are a lot of buzzy tech terms that are being thrown around the agricultural sector these days! These are generally foreign to traditional farmers and can be confusing. Like any new industry, there are wild claims from ‘manufacturers’ and many technological snake oil salesmen. It’s worth doing the extra research to know you’re getting what you need!

Home Gardens

Affordable sensors and data devices are now available for the hobby and home gardener. Generally, these instruments are aimed at remote monitoring with some limited control functionality. Sensor technology allows users to monitor their environment (i.e. temperature, humidity, VPD, Co2, and light levels) alongside fertigation information (i.e. water pH, temperature, and EC monitoring and dosing), and hardware (i.e. digital ‘smart’ fan controllers, lighting timers).

data-driven cultivation

Brands such as Bluelab (NZ) and PulseGrow (USA) are specializing in these fields of data functionality. Their devices are sold in hydroponic stores and used by small to medium-sized commercial facilities. These affordable technologies use data to activate pre-set alarms (i.e. a humidity alarm would warn of an irrigation malfunction, and a lighting alarm will let you know if someone accidentally turns on a light at the incorrect time). Data on demand ensures you can watch your facility and conditions even remotely via a smartphone or the interwebs.

Choose Wisely

However, like all electronics – you get what you pay for. Non-reputable brands often use cheaper sensors and inferior probes, and these devices can cause more headaches than solutions! Misleading information can be more dangerous if people are changing parameters unnecessarily or adjusting to risky levels.

As the technology evolves in data for monitoring, this naturally encourages more affordable control systems. Home gardeners can access control systems that can operate several fans, dehumidifiers, A/C, fertigation, and other HVAC components harmoniously.

Sounds great right? Lazy, smarter farming!

However, it’s not all flawless packets of data whizzing through the air. Technology evolves and scales, as do the cautionary tales!

If you are looking into data-driven solutions for your home garden – choose carefully. There are a lot of risks with new technology. Hardware becomes outdated, or the actual business stops operating and hosting an app, and servers or functions may become obsolete. The most frustrating risk? Darn paywalls being added after starting to use the app!

For the home, hobby or serious gardener or farmer – it pays to ask the following four questions for purchasing data-driven tech:

4 Key Purchasing Questions for Data-Driven Technology

  • How useful is the data? Are the probes and sensors reliable and trustworthy?
  • How well is the data used? Does the app correctly analyze the data for your purpose?
  • Is the user interface friendly and intuitive? Does the app easily show you what you need to know?
  • How safe is data retention? Will their servers be secure, reliable, and accessible for any future data download requirements and reflective learning?

Commercial Gardens

As we move into commercial facilities, different novel tech tools are being used for indoor and outdoor gardening. Commercial indoor facilities using controlled environment agriculture (CEA) engage in high-tech monitoring and control systems such as ‘Priva’. These BMS (Building Management System) technologies use hundreds of sensors to precisely operate entire facilities, and multiple grow rooms, or glasshouses.

With multimillion-dollar cultivation rooms and glasshouses, these high-tech systems generate gigabytes of data; usually stored on cloud-based servers and internationally supported from the Netherlands or the USA using remote access. These expensive systems offer 24/7 peace of mind with accurate and reliable data. Each system is built to custom specifications for the user.

These commercial systems allow complicated, multi-faceted building and glasshouse HVAC equipment to operate harmoniously. The priority for these systems is generally energy efficiency, alongside preventing critical failures and crop losses. These clever computer control systems are responsible for operating multimillion-dollar facilities almost autonomously; automatically adjusting for climatic extremes and other external factors to keep production maximized.

Outdoor Growing

When farms scale to outdoor (broadacre) production, the data requirements change significantly. Although farmers still benefit from knowing essential parameters within their crop (i.e. soil moisture levels), the vital data comes from forecasting and macroclimatic data.

Using advancing weather sensor technology in combination with AI (artificial intelligence) allows for novel products such as “The Yield” by Microsoft to precisely predict future weather. This lets farmers make smarter decisions with costly inputs such as irrigation and general processes such as the timing of harvest.

Large scale farms also use GPS (telematics) to drive tractors, form beds, lay irrigation, and apply chemicals. This removes the potential for human error and allows the farmer to maximize the potential of the farm mathematically.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Drones also take advantage of GPS and camera technologies to allow for real-time information on crop development, growth, ripeness, and plant health monitoring, plant recognition, soil condition, and equipment detection.

Data generated by these advanced imaging systems and software allows the farmer to deliver a more productive and sustainable approach to agricultural production, based on the precise use of resources. Robotics and automation then enable the farm to function without excessive labor demands, but that’s a topic for another article!

Plant Breeding

The other exciting revolution in data science for agriculture is developments in the field of plant breeding. DNA/RNA assay marker-assisted breeding, speed-breeding, and incredibly powerful imaging technology are allowing faster and more prevalent breeding traits in all crop species. Researchers can analyze a tiny part of plant tissue, even from a newly germinated seedling. Once the tissue is analyzed, scientists know whether the plant has desirable genes for breeding, rapidly reducing the time needed for selection.

A green revolution is being led by technology. Data allows us to better understand our soil, our environment, and our plants. Data-driven decisions allow you to farm better crops and I implore you to take advantage of this information – no more growing blind!

If you are operating in an outdated political environment (where certain plants are seen as dangerous), just remember; “Weather data is not admissible in court.” 😉

Happy Gardening, Folks!

Tom Forrest
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Tom Forrest

Tom is a certified horticulturalist and paid consultant working in the Australian medical cannabis industry. After finishing studies in production horticulture (hydroponics) and plant biology; Tom has spent the past 6 years working in the protected cropping space. Tom is passionate about sustainable yet economic cultivation methodologies and also teaches cannabis cultivation as part of university and private education programs. Tom is also the Communications Manager for Stealth Garden wholesale supplies.
Tom Forrest
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