Imagine the toil of history’s first indoor farmers, whose labor was spent manually adjusting lights, watering plants, preventing disease and pest outbreaks, and ventilating their grow spaces. If they weren’t already growing their crops in a university lab or a basement closet, they were also likely doubting why it was worth the trouble when everyone else was having more success growing food outside.
Today’s indoor farmers have turned the narrative to produce record yields and to develop a market projected to reach values of $3 billion USD by 2024. Of the many technological advancements that have begun to propel profitable controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) farms from pipe dream to reality, those concerning the Internet of things (IoT) have been particularly significant. IoT has enabled all of the equipment which creates and controls the indoor environments for plant growth—including lighting, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, irrigation, carbon-dioxide pumps, and respective sensors to monitor them—to communicate with each other and with other computers. The data collected from these systems and their embedded communication capacities allow farmers to remotely, precisely, and even automatically control their growing environments for optimal or expressive plant growth.
IoT has developed rapidly in the last ten years and now presents a remarkable breadth of unique technologies and applications for CEA. Most companies which produce IoT hardware and sensors also create the software to manage them. While this is vital for farmers to effectively understand and manage their data, it can also be limiting for those who seek to integrate hardware from different companies into a singular agtech ecosystem, as there is no standard communication protocol (e.g., Bluetooth, WiFi, ZigBee, etc.) used among all IoT companies and products. This means that farmers may run into incompatibilities when trying to integrate a new sensor or device into their existing IoT system and manage it from their existing software platform.
"IoT has enabled all of the equipment which creates and controls the indoor environments for plant growth to communicate with each other and with other computers"
One company attempting to provide a solution to this is Grow Computer, who is designing what they refer to as “the operating system for indoor agriculture.” GrowOS aims to be an operating system for farmers that is flexible enough to talk to every hardware component and data source that exists in the IoT market (which is currently estimated to be 7 billion units globally). Rooted in the design and knowledge-sharing ideas of the Food Computer of MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative, Grow Computer wants to create a platform that is accessible to everyone and that allows users to build software for their farms, connect with one another, and share information seamlessly.
IoT is an important toolset that will help meet global demands for fresh, local, and healthy food, but it will only become effective once it is accessible to more people. In a recent interview with Agritecture, Grow Computer emphasizes, “we believe that the tools to enable profitable and successful growing need to be better democratized to everyone and anyone who wants to grow,” including large vertical farms, small indoor farms, educators, and hobbyists alike. This work is part of a larger trend in AgTech—accompanied by the likes of iFarm and Digital Green—that is beginning to value technology as a method of accelerating solutions to issues in agriculture and the environment from people of diverse backgrounds and interests.
Indoor farm operators and business owners have reason to be excited by this, too, due to the potential of seamless IoT to reduce labor and inform smarter decisions. New approaches to using the technology we already have fill an important market niche that will be one of the most important next steps in continuing the expansion of indoor agriculture we have so far witnessed.