Urban agriculture goes digital, links up with IoT

By November 29, 2013
Urban Agriculture and the Internet of Things

The expansion of urban agriculture has to take advantage of the digital optimization.

Some 58% of the world’s population today live in cities and, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, urban agriculture is already being practiced by several hundred million citizens – city-dwellers who transform their towns into green, food-growing spaces that also help to create social links. Urban agriculture projects have been on the rise in recent years, taking on a range of innovative forms with a variety of different objectives. Sometimes people are looking to ensure genuine self-sufficiency and food security, sometimes the projects have educational aims and sometimes it’s all about residents taking back ownership of their own town. Meanwhile the agricultural sector is making a lot of technical progress, with new technologies linked to the Internet of Things (IoT) enabling people to monitor and manage growing conditions and so save time, to streamline processes and reduce crop losses. The connected objects used on a small scale for urban agriculture or horticulture certainly have a lot to offer, helping to develop this type of growing and, by making the cultivation of smaller land areas affordable, put it on a sound long-term footing.

IoT lets plants speak for themselves

A number of initiatives in this field are underway based on the use of wireless sensors. How it works is that sensors are placed next to plants and connected to mobile apps which feed back data on the plant’s condition in real time so as to help optimize growth. Early this year Illinois-based Oso Technologies raised close to $100,000 on the Kickstarter platform to develop Plant Link, a system which uses wireless sensors. The device is placed next to the plant and connected to the Plant Link website, on which the user has previously entered information on soil type at the growing location and the range of plants s/he has planted there.  Based on this information Plant Link monitors the real-time data fed back from the sensors to assess moisture levels. This data is stored in the Cloud and users can access it online or via the app, which can also notify them by SMS or email of action they need to take, with such messages as “your tomato plant is thirsty”. Plant Link also comes with a ‘smart valve’, which can be used to activate a watering system automatically. The thinking behind the Harvest Geek app which came out at the beginning of the year is very similar. HarvestGeek also adds a social dimension to the Internet of Things, enabling interactions with other users on plant and crop-growing matters and so providing a channel for connected agri- and horticultural practitioners to obtain extra advice.

The drawbacks of urban agriculture

Notwithstanding its many advantages, urban agriculture has come in for some criticism regarding crop quality and healthiness. Researchers at the Technical University in Berlin who have studied the effects of urban pollution on foodstuffs produced in urban conditions have found high concentrations of heavy metals in some vegetables grown in central city districts where traffic is very dense, raising legitimate concerns about urban gardens located close to high-density traffic routes. However, if citizens living in this kind of environment wish to be part of the urban agriculture movement, they have other ways to do so. One option is to use GrowCube. This is an Internet-connected piece of equipment the size of a washing machine. It works on the basis of aeroponics (i.e. bathing the plant in a mist of water-droplets), is airtight and so impervious to ambient urban pollution. Connected to a mobile app, it allows the user to monitor and control the micro-climate inside the cube in real time. It would appear that urban agriculture is yet another sector where connected objects

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