Adjusting the conditions under which crops grow, according to their specific needs, might be the only way to secure food resources in the future, especially if this can be done on a balcony of a small flat. Not possible, you would say? Meet the guys who do it – CoolFarm.
In the light of climate change, securing food resources for the ever-so-growing world population is proving to be the ultimate challenge that our society faces. The land available for agriculture is depleting rapidly, and the factors that influence this are simply way to many to address in the limited time we have.
Severe droughts cause massive desertification in one part of the world, while floods ruin the fields in other places. And as if natural disasters are not enough, wrong agricultural practices, extensive illegal deforestation and urbanization take priority over proper, maybe not so profitable, food production.
Last week I attended a conference in Amsterdam, where lead-scientists from the field of ecology and agriculture, together with experts and farmers, got together to discuss the complex nature of farming and look for solutions to existing problems by taking example and learning from nature.
One initiative managed to attract my attention, especially because the guys behind it have an admirable ambition and forward thinking- that is CoolFarm. CoolFarm is a kind of urban farming scheme, which intends to use artificial intelligence to establish and provide the optimal conditions for agricultural production at any given location. What they do sounds a bit like ‘if people cannot do it, let’s bring on the robots’.
I managed to get hold of one of the speakers at the event, Dr. Sabrina Carvalho, who is an Agriculture and Plant Sensing Specialist at the CoolFarm. She agreed to answer a few questions for me regarding their incredible initiative. Here is what she had to say about it.
Mila: In the most simplest of terms, how would you describe CoolFarm to people with no background in agriculture or farming? Is this what everyone calls Smart Agriculture?
Sabrina: Yes, in a way we can call it smart agriculture. CoolFarm is a state-of-the–art Plug&Play solution established, at the moment, for cultivation farms (ex: hydroponic, aeroponics, aquaponics, bioponics or even soil) where the most important aspects of growing plants, such as nutrients, water etc, can be easily controlled in synchrony with the plant needs. CoolFarm can self-regulate, as it incorporates machine learning techniques, so it can give to the plants what they need when they need it allowing a sustainable use of resources. Because the system will learn with the farmers, in a short period CoolFarm will be able to define the best ways to grow plants efficiently and warn you when something is not right. If connected to the cloud it will take advantage of the shared information worldwide to improve your efficiency.
Mila: What is your mission and ultimate goal?
Sabrina: Our ultimate goal is to provide the best technological system to grow happy plants, sustainably and organically in any farming setting, especially in the urban areas. We wish to make it easier and more intuitive, real-time optimized in terms of plant growth and resource management, and as a result, minimize waste becoming profitable and secure for farmers.
On a longer term we would like to provide a solution to the individual grower/aficionado. Let’s put it this way, houses started having toilet systems integrated into the house more or less a century ago. Our ultimate dream is that houses start having greenhouses integrated so that everyone can enjoy growing their food, even if they are not familiar with “farming”. CoolFarm will take care of your plants and you will enjoy the process. And even when you are away you can be assured everything is OK because CoolFarm keeps you updated via the smartphone application.
Mila: What technology are you testing, developing and intend to be using?
Sabrina: At the moment we are testing the capacity of CoolFarm to interpret plant behaviour. Most people are not aware that plants communicate in very sophisticated ways. Plants can be happy, sick or under attack and will give symptoms of that. In a simplistic explanation, we use highly sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge to teach the CoolFarm what plants are saying.
Mila: Realistically, how feasible it is to implement this concept on a global scale?
Sabrina: Very. CoolFarm is already being implemented in several alpha sites, farmers and urban farmers, that are collaborating with us to further improve CoolFarm sync with the needs of the farmer. The most important aspect it that it is not soil dependent, so, most rooftops and urban areas can take advantage of this system to monetize currently wasted areas. We started in June 2014 and we already secured 1million Euros investment, so the interest to enhance crop growth efficiency is there and the potential is high.
Mila: What would be the main benefits to the end-user?
Sabrina: You don’t need to know all about growing plants or the greenhouse system, if you want to grow a few plants in a small greenhouse at your balcony or several hectares CoolFarm is an artificial intelligent system that self-regulates and will help you all the way. This is a state-of-the–art Plug&Play solution established for cultivation farms (ex: hydroponic, aeroponics, aquaponics, bioponics or even soil) making control easier and more intuitive, optimised in terms of plant growth and resource management, and as a result, more profitable! The fact it allows you to monitor real-time what is happening in your greenhouse is the best way to secure a good outcome.
Mila: Is CoolFarm the solution to the global food security problem?
Sabrina: I would like to think so. Food security is a complex problem with several aspects to tackle, such as global legislation, consumer habits, food transport, validation of new technologies and the usage of urban spaces (among many others). CoolFarm is working on the junction of 2 key aspects, precision farming and urban production. As such we believe we won’t be the (only) solution but we will contribute for urban settlers to enjoy growing food locally in a more secure, sustainable and organic way. Also this technique will allow greenhouse farmers to improve their resources use, monitoring crop production rates in real time and limit their food waste. We don’t expect to replace large scale productions but we hope to give local producers some leeway when global production issues arise. As such we expect to contribute positively to this food security challenge.
Mila: If an Average-Jo farmer wants to use your concept to transform their farm into a “CoolFarm”, would that be possible and how- or we need you guys?
Sabrina: The great aspect of CoolFarm is its flexibility. We do not impose a farm system; we focus on creating a software solution that can handle what an average farmer already integrates into their crop system. That way we avoid waste and allow farmers to improve on what they already have. If you don’t have anything yet and would like to start then we can provide you with a full package, a greenhouse that fits your needs. At the moment, CoolFarm technology can be directly applied to two distinct markets, hydroponic greenhouses which encompasses hydroponic and aquaponic urban greenhouses; and micro-algae reactors which are used to manufacture biofuels, and in the food and cosmetics industries.
How would you need us? Well, CoolFarm will be with you all the time as you can sync your greenhouse with new technologies (smartphones, tablets, etc), assuring you that the best practices are running fine and warning you of any problem arising in real-time.
Mila: Is there anything else that you would like the world to know about you guys?
Sabrina: We are a multidisciplinary team that, after our PhDs and post-doc research, decided to join forces in order to provide our knowledge in the best way to the end-user. By combining artificial intelligence, plant biology and interface design we are sure we will cover state-of-the-art scientific knowledge and make it user friendly. We hope users enjoy it as much as we do.
Image (c) CoolFarm