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Cambridge lab monitors data from urban underground farm

1st April 2021 about a 3 minute read
“Over the next few years we’ll see an exponential growth in the tech behind LEDs, Internet of Things, cloud computing and wireless sensors.  But the real game changer will be cheap renewable energy and battery storage Richard Ballard, Growing Underground co-founder

A team of engineers and data specialists have created a ‘digital twin’ to help support an underground farm in South West London.

The farm, believed to be the first of its kind, can be found 33 metres below Clapham High Street in an old World War Two air raid shelter.

Its staff sow, pack and grow on site, and the harvest from the farm, called Growing Underground, goes to New Covent Garden Market, less than a mile away, for distribution.

Meanwhile the Cambridge based team of researchers help the farmers to optimise crop performance and reduce energy use. They are led by Dr Ruchi Choudhary from the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at the University of Cambridge and the Data-centric Engineering Programme at the Alan Turing Institute.

They have reduced the time it takes to grow some crops by 50% and all crops by an average of 7%, while increasing yields by 24%. 

Meanwhile, the crops are grown using less space and water than conventional greenhouse growing, no pesticides and 100% renewable energy.

Four years ago, Cambridge’s Department of Engineering began creating the digital twin by installing sensors in the tunnels to capture data.

They monitor the plants around the clock using 25 sensors measuring 89 variables transmitting to eight Raspberry Pi loggers in the tunnels. 

Nutrients, water, lights, heat, CO2, airflow, humidity and crop growth are tracked. The data is warehoused on a server in Cambridge and sent over WiFi to an online horticultural data platform.

Digital twins are increasingly being considered for optimising energy use in agriculture. But this is the first time a digital twin has been shown to mirror an urban farm through real-time streams of data.

“We’re using open-source software and economical platforms like Raspberry Pi so that our system will be transferrable to other bespoke environments. As awareness of the need for sustainable food production has risen, so has the drive to incorporate green infrastructure within cities. Urban integrated farming offers an excellent mechanism to contribute to meeting the UK targets of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.” Lead researcher Dr Ruchi Choudhary

The World Resources Institute estimates that to feed 10 billion people sustainably by 2050 will require closing a 56% food gap between crop calories produced in 2010 and those needed in 2050.

Richard Ballard, Growing Underground co-founder, says: “Over the next few years we’ll see an exponential growth in the tech behind LEDs, Internet of Things, cloud computing and wireless sensors.

“But the real game changer will be cheap renewable energy and battery storage. Then we’ll really start to see large vertical farms in and around urban areas growing staples like wheat and maize”.

By 2022, Growing Underground hopes to be producing over 60 tonnes of produce per year from a 528m2 area (roughly the size of one tennis court), enough to meet the yearly lettuce consumption of 10,000 adults

The farm grows 12 times more per unit area than a traditional greenhouse grows in the UK but it also consumes four times more energy per unit area.

More information is available here

 

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