Autonomous Greenhouse

This interview details Autonomous Greenhouse, an indoor farming technology company based in the Netherlands. The interview is with Silke Hemming, Head Scientific Research Team Greenhouse Technology at Wageningen University & Research.

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

What is the origin story of the Autonomous Greenhouse?

The idea of Autonomous Greenhouses goes back to 2006 when colleagues of mine did experiments to control a sweet pepper greenhouse with a greenhouse climate and energy model (KASPRO, de Zwart, 1996). Having successfully shown that it is in principle possible to use a computer model to control greenhouse climate fully automatically, we thought this is interesting enough to do more research on the topic and go towards implementation in practice.

However, it seemed that the time/the horticultural sector was not ripe for that step. It took another 12 years to get funding for the idea when we met David Wallerstein, CXO of Tencent. He was directly enthusiastic about the idea and we developed the International Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge together. The idea here is to bring enthusiastic (young) people from academics and industry together to develop AI algorithms and show that Autonomous Greenhouses can be feasible in the future. The challenge has an open character. Everyone can participate and results are published and papers and open access datasets.

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

What are some of the biggest challenges you are trying to research in the future? 

In 3 editions of the challenge we have shown the proof of principle that Autonomous Greenhouses can be feasible, new crop physiological insights have been gained, open-access datasets have been made accessible and a worldwide community has been built. In the 4th edition we want to build further on these elements.

Main challenges are: There are still not enough FAIR open accessible datasets. Algorithms need to be made more robust for different conditions (different crops, greenhouses, climate zones, technology levels). Bridging the gap between theory and model environment and practical environment needs to be worked on. How to implement uncertainties, unexpected events, and new elements.

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

What is the current size of your growing area?

We are no growers, but a research organization. The Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge is carried out in small greenhouses of ca. 100 m2.

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

Do you use CO2 in your operation today -- if so, how much and what do you pay for it? What are your thoughts in CO2 usage in indoor farms?

We have the option to use additional CO2 in our greenhouses. This CO2 can come from different sources, a majority of Dutch growers located in the Western part of the Netherlands use OCAP CO2 (waste CO2 from industry).

Alternatives are e.g. CO2 from waste incinerators, but also CO2 extractions from outside air. We have a large research project to test different technology for direct air capture of CO2. More general: Crops need CO2 and light as a driving force of photosynthesis. With no light, the plant will die, no CO2 the plant will die as well. How much CO2 is needed and to smartly dose it are subject of other large research projects.

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

Energy is a big topic in indoor farming right now. How much do you pay for electricity (kWh)? Is it mainly from the grid or renewables?

Sun energy is free. Make use of it. Light is the driving force of plant photosynthesis, sun light is available for free. That is the basic idea of greenhouses! Next to that sun energy can be used for heating the greenhouse in colder climates (such as the Netherlands).

However, due to seasonal differences in the availability of sun energy (also dependent on climatic regions), it might be economically smart to add additional energy to the greenhouse to optimize energy use efficiency per crop product produced. Energy should come from additional sustainable sources e.g. geothermal (a good source for several greenhouses in the Netherlands), but also biomass, biogas, biooil etc. might be good alternatives. We look at green hydrogen in another research project. Green electricity comes from wind and solar panels.

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

How can people connect with you or learn more about the Autonomous Greenhouse project? 

Yes, please visit www.autonomousgreenhouses.com (.nl) or email to autonomousgreenhouses@wur.nl

Source: Autonomous Greenhouse

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