Computer-Controlled Farms Change the Game in Urban Agriculture

Computer-Controlled Farms Change the Game in Urban Agriculture

Along a desolate stretch of a Brooklyn waterfront that was once one of the nation’s great industrial centers, a military warehouse from around 1916 has sat unoccupied for years. This year, the crown of the building will begin a second life as the world’s largest rooftop farm — a 100,000-square-foot, computer-controlled greenhouse that will grow up to 1 million pounds of produce each year.

With global food demand expected to double over the next four decades and consumers increasingly concerned with the carbon miles used to transport produce, innovators around the globe are fashioning new methods for growing large amounts of food in population-dense urban centers.

“Farming is the most common economic activity on the face of the earth. It’s incredibly important,” said Intel Labs researcher Richard Beckwith. “Over half of all economically active people are involved in agriculture.”

The Brooklyn project is the work of BrightFarms, which Fast Company named one of the “World’s 10 Most Innovative Companies” in the food industry. BrightFarms builds highly automated, hydroponic greenhouses to grow urban produce year-round, and at far more efficient rates than traditional farms. The company just opened its first hydroponic greenhouse near Philadelphia, and is also constructing greenhouses and farms in St. Paul, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City.


Sensors throughout the greenhouse will feed information back to a central computer system, which is programmed to make intelligent decisions about growing factors such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed. If the greenhouse becomes too hot, roof vents will automatically open. If it remains overheated, fans switch on; and if that’s still not enough, a shade will draw down. The computer even knows what conditions are like outside, so it won’t open the roof if it’s raining.

“Not only does this let the farmers focus on farming and not worry about changing conditions, but it also conserves energy and increases efficiency by eliminating human error,” said Zak Adams, BrightFarms’ Director of Engineering. “Traditionally, farmers have to make their own decision about when to hand-crank open the vents; but the point at which it feels too humid to a person may not necessarily be too humid for plants.”

The predictive algorithms programmed into BrightFarms’ system eliminate that type of human error and significantly boost productivity. “By being able to effectively control the ambient air and roots around the plants,” said Adams, “we create an atmosphere in which the yield of vegetables per square foot is about ten times that of traditional greenhouses.”

While the upcoming Brooklyn greenhouse is the largest of its kind, this type of intelligent farming is cropping up in many different settings around the world. In Tokyo, a massive underground farm grows 100 types of produce, from tomatoes to rice, using white LED lights, high-pressure sodium lamps, and a computer-regulated heating system. Consumers can now even grow their own plants inside a USB Greenhouse that plugs into your home computer.

In Oregon, Intel’s Beckwith developed a system of 65 wireless sensors for vineyards to control irrigation of grape vines (video below). These sensors “characterize the compositional chemistry of the grapes. This would allow for much better control over fruit quality,” Beckwith said. “This, in general, increases the value of the crop.”

Such innovations “can help you predict when a crop should be harvested, what crops your land will support, which pests you may need to watch for,” Beckwith continued. “So much of what farmers care about is invisible. These technologies can give a farmer a window onto things that they really care about.”

And so, as urban farmers continue to invent more high-tech methods that expand their productivity, it’s not far-fetched to think that before long, the majority of what city-dwellers eat will be grown minutes from our homes, rather than hundreds of miles away.


Images courtesy of BrightFarms.