The IoT's recipe for fine eating

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks December 28, 2015
IoT techniques and technologies are starting to be applied to food production in ways that can provide both specialist foods for those with serious allergy issues, and a highly flexible yet consistent food production environment.

Growing Underground

Mention IoT and most people will instantly think of huge manufacturing or production plants such a petrochemical facilities laboring away to produce thousands of gallons of vital, but nearly always noxious 'stuff'. It is less likely that they will think of farming. And not just farming, but farming in strange places.

But that is becoming something of a trend these days. Old, now-unused facilities – possibly industrial but with a range of other purposes – are being taken over and turned to good use growing plant foods for us all. What is more, the companies behind this trend are often able to charge a good premium for their efforts.

Two have emerged recently as examples in the widening portfolios of major vendors’ customers. One is work being done by Fujitsu, which came to light at the company’s recent Munich-based Fujitsu Forum. The other was via the Microsoft Convergence conference earlier this month, where its customer, London-based Growing Underground, showed its novel approach to using IoT technologies.

In both cases the idea has been to adapt and exploit systems and components originally designed for IoT use so that they can monitor and manage the growth of foodstuffs all year round that can find a ready market.

The work now being undertaken at Fujitsu in Japan stems from the company’s work in two un-related areas: farm micro-management and the manufacture of semiconductor devices.

That work has been based around monitoring a range of parameters across different arable fields. This included the amount of sunlight, rainfall, subsequent moisture retention, the nutrient levels in the soil etc, and were measured over several points in each field. This demonstrated that the productivity across a single field could vary greatly, and led to the company developing technology to automatically guide the actions of farm machinery.

For example, top dressing systems could be loaded with a range of different nutrients and supplements, which were delivered in appropriate quantities to different parts of a single field.

From this the company has moved to helping customers producing specialist foodstuff for those people with food allergies. Here , the clean room facilities essential for producing complex semiconductor devices are being re-purposed to provide a rigidly controlled growing environment with full management of nutrient and climate parameters. This gives deliberately modified foodstuffs, that would probably not survive in the wild, a safe and controlled micro-climate in which to grow.

Going underground

A fundamentally similar approach is now being used underneath London, by Microsoft Dynamics customer, Growing Underground.

As the company name implies, the company has set its sights on re-purposing old tunnels, some 100 feet underground, beneath Clapham Junction tube station. These were built in the early 1940s as bomb shelters for Londoners during the Blitz.

Now, however, they are being used to grow, using the hydroponics approach, a range of plants, such as watercress, Thai Basil, Red Vein Sorrel, Pea Shoots, Mustard, Red Amaranth, garlic, chive, coriander, mizuna, rocket, and radishes, generally known in the trade as 'micro-greens', for the London marketplace – mainly restaurants and hotels, but also specialist food outlets and the city’s Covent Garden market. It has already got to the level of supplying these outlets on a daily basis.

According to Growing Underground’s CEO, Richard Ballard, the key advantage of its growing methods is that is can be used in any hole in the ground, including under deserts. The important factor here is that, once down a few tens of feet the temperature becomes increasingly stable, regardless of the season, which gives a fundamental base level of climate with which to work.

The company uses green energy sources, and minimum amounts of water, as well as low power LED grow lights. In addition, the company is now involved in developing software that will allow it to control all elements of the growing environment. Using this approach, the company expects to be able to monitor the real time light, moisture and temperature conditions required by any food plant from just about anywhere in the world, and recreate that environment under the streets of London.

This will allow the company to significantly increase its product range, with an initial step from micro-greens to baby leaf plants as the first step.

Both individually and together, these stories represent an interesting spin on the notion of IoT, using it for small scale farming that could make a dramatic contribution to feeding the people of the world. Many places around the world have 'holes-in-the-ground', both natural caves and human-made tunnelling, all of which could make a good start point. And given the human predeliction for digging holes in the ground, mining skills could easily be used to dig more.

There are also many redundant factories around the globe that could be suitable, with adaptation, for such a role, even if only a minority would have existing clean-room facilities suitable for growing the more esoteric plants. What is important here is the ability to monitor and control all aspects of the growing environment.

With that ability, food flexibility can come to the fore. It should become possible for such a business to switch between a winter crop and a summer crop as quickly as one can be harvested and the other planted, with perhaps an equipment cleaning session in between. Indeed, this could be happening simultaneously in different sections of the facility.

My take

This does seem to represent an interesting spin on the IoT narrative, and one which the average person in the street can readily identify.