A close look at the emerging model for autonomous indoor farming reveals something surprising: The vertical farm model bears a striking resemblance to that of distributed computer networking.
Indoor farming (often referred to as vertical farming) can be as basic as traditional greenhouses operated with few or no autonomous systems. This article, however, looks at the current state and near-term future of highly robotic indoor farming that typically is organized vertically on shelves rather than horizontally over acres of soil.
Automated indoor farming’s mission differs very little from that of historical agriculture. Both seek to produce food while doing the following:
- Cutting production, distribution, and environmental costs
- Minimizing time to market
- Expanding output variety
- Addressing consumer demands
- Standardizing high quality
“There’s enthusiasm for this among investors, but there’s also some jaundice,” said Nicola Kerslake, founder of Newbean Capital in Reno, Nev. “The last wave of ag tech met with resistance” from technologically conservative farmers, she said.
Research firm IBISWorld estimates that annual revenue for the industry is about $850 million and that it has grown at 5.3 percent a year between 2011 and 2016 — respectable, not phenomenal.
There are about 200 indoor farms around the world, with about 100 in Japan, 25 in the U.S., perhaps 50 in China, and 10 in the EU.
How a vertical farm yields benefits
Still, indoor agriculture advantages over the status quo are substantial. It virtually eliminates the uncertainty of weather-related challenges and enables 24-hour operations all year.
A vertical farm also allows farmers to grow anywhere they can get a facility, water, and electricity — notably within cities — and to rapidly scale operations to changing market demand.
There are also efforts under way to apply robotics to aquaculture for fish production.