Start-Ups

Why engineers are critical to the future of sustainable farming

Urban and indoor farming will grow in importance as the population rises. Grove Labs is showing how engineers can tackle sustainable food and tech challenges.

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A rendering of Grove Labs' sustainable home farming system.
Image: Grove Labs

As the population climbs toward 9 billion in 2050, the planet will need more food. As cities develop and arable land vanishes, we will have to take advantage of urban spaces. As the climate changes, we must find innovative ways to farm.

Mimicking nature with 21st century technology requires skillful engineering. Simply maintaining indoor farms is difficult — not to mention the feat of replicating sunlight or the challenge of building sensors and software to gather and analyze information about the well-being of plants.

The traditional notion of a farmer throughout the past century for most people is probably an older man, clad in overalls, driving a beat-up Ford pickup truck around his land. But that is finally beginning to change — and it has to.

"By introducing engineers and technologists, people that have worked at consumer design brands, and bringing that experience and worldview, we can make farming and food tech and ag tech sexy. Once [that] appears, it's a self fulfilling prophecy. [There will] be more engineers," said Gabe Blanchet, co-founder and CEO of Grove Labs, which has created a home aquaponics system the size of a bookshelf that has sensors and software to automatically update people of their crops' health and send the information to their smartphones.

Changing the course

Blanchet and his co-founder and CTO Jamie Byron were engineers, hard-wired at MIT to follow a path that the education system had set out for them. Like most students, they took the courses they were most interested in and selected a major from those choices. Blanchet picked mechanical engineering and Byron decided to look into a career with wind turbine technology and engineering.

Byron worked on an experimental farm in college, which led to his interest in aquaponics and growing food. He built his own system in their dorm room, which made the two realize the potential of the technology.

"Not only was this cool to do but this is something that if packaged more beautifully, and using technology to make it easier and more educational, could impact how people think about food and even about nature," Blanchet said.

They founded Grove Labs in Boston and closed on a $2 million seed round. The indoor farming product is a fairly simple aquaponics system, made for the average person to use. It's a bookshelf-sized unit that, if combined with multiple units, can allow owners to grow up to 30 to 40% of their food, including leafy greens, herbs, and crops like tomatoes and peppers. And, it's a consumer product, so it's something that can be easily integrated into a house or apartment. Pricing hasn't been announced yet.

The ecosystem is cultivated through a platform Grove Labs built. Sensors are placed throughout the unit, monitoring the fish, water, and food, and the information is sent to the owner's smartphone. From there, they can have nutrient packages or other replacements delivered.

The tech behind it is complicated. Mimicking the sun with special LED lights, a sensor system so people don't have to fiddle with their plants every day — that requires electrical engineering, algorithm developments, and hardware and manufacturing engineering, Blanchet said. Part of the software Grove Labs uses is Meteor, a full-stack Javascript framework that excels at data synchronization. They use it to monitor plants in real-time and build solutions based on what is happening in the aquaponics systems.

Currently, the team is running tests with prototypes in Boston, though the product is getting closer to being ready for launch.

"We're growing food in innovative ways," Blanchet said. "There's not too much tech to a small organic, non-technologically advanced farm in Indiana, but growing food in innovative ways requires engineering."

But the education system is siloed, Blanchet said. Asking an engineer to pick up biology or a biologist to pick up engineering is not the easiest thing in the world, but engineering education must become more multi-faceted as we move toward a technologically advanced future in every industry.

At Grove Labs, they train engineers on the job in biology and other sciences. It has been fun for the engineers on his team, Blanchet said, since in traditional schooling, biology and engineering can be at odds with one another. Blanchet said he thinks this on-the-job training will be the future, especially if things don't change in the education sphere.

"It will happen in industry because it's required to think multidisciplinary or you aren't solving a big enough piece of the pie," he said.

Farming in the future

There are a few types of systems that work for sustainable farming:

  • Hydroponics: Plants are grown in nutrient-rich water with some sort of culture such as gravel or sand.
  • Aeroponics: Plants grow in an air or mist environment, without a growing medium. The roots dangle and are fed by the nutrient-rich water.
  • Aquaponics: This combines aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquatic animals excrete in the water, and the byproducts are broken down into nitrates and nitrites, which feed the plants in a hydroponic system. The water is recirculated back into the aquaculture system.

"The culture is shifting, and there's more and more awareness about agriculture — that at its core, it is just not sustainable," Blanchet said.

In Japan, the world's largest indoor farm was built in an abandoned Sony factory, where leafy greens and other plants are grown hydroponically. In an old bomb shelter underground in London, Zero Carbon Food built a giant underground farm to grow food for local restaurants. AeroFarms has built a business around helping people utilize the technology to create their own indoor aeroponics farms. And similarly, in major cities like Chicago, urban and rooftop farming allows people to take advantage of previously wasted space and generate power with solar arrays.

"Societies are going to need radically new ways to grow new food." Gabe Blanchet, Grove Labs CEO

Engineers are behind these projects, and as they grow, so will the demand for that kind of expertise. Sustainable farming "requires data and measurements," said Dennis Buckmaster, a professor in the Ag and Biological Engineering department at Purdue University. "These will be enabled only as engineers get involved to make it happen. Much of sustainability has to do with water quality, soil retention, ecosystem management, etc. The equipment we use, how we use it, how and when we irrigate (if we do), and even the algorithms to optimize crop production require engineering."

What's more, he added, is that many people don't realize the importance of managing these new technologies, whether they are large or small scale projects.

The world of food and agricultural technology is expanding rapidly in all sectors of the industry, not just farming. There are new 3D printers specifically for food; meat now grown in labs; the food delivery space has seen massive growth with startups like Caviar and Seamless; Blue Apron has people interested in cooking at home more often; platforms like Farmigo are connecting local farmers to their communities; social media is helping reduce food waste.

Blanchet was weary of confusing these types of innovations with "agricultural technology," which can include potentially dangerous technology like GMOs and biological engineering. People often lump all them together so it is in a framework they understand — like ag tech, or hardware, or software — when in reality, the nuances between the different verticals are very important.

In the short term, society needs engineers to consider urban farming and engineering and optimize outdoor farming practices, like with precision agriculture systems. In the long term, Blanchet said, "societies are going to need radically new ways to grow new food."

Luckily, engineering at its core, he added, is about solving problems by using logic. There's room in the future of sustainable farming for many types of engineers, Blanchet said, but they are united by a common understanding and ability: "to take a problem, break it down to core parts, set a plan on how to solve each one, and in sum, that will solve the big problems."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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