The next generation greenhouse
How greenhouses are changing and how new innovations are creating new potential
Walking into the supermarket, most consumers find fruit and vegetables all year round, even if outdoors they are not in season. Imports and indoor growing in greenhouses make this possible. Especially crops that can’t be stored for long are almost 100% grown under glass, especially in Europe’s western countries. This applies for example to tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
This growing demand for fruit and vegetables year-round is one of the reasons indoor farming is becoming more popular. In addition, growers are facing changes of the environment, climate and weather, tending to become more extreme, which increases the risk of yield being destroyed.
The demand for fresh produce is growing – and the wishes of consumers for it to be fresher and more sustainable than ever.
Over the last decades, greenhouses have undergone many changes – processes were improved, watering and plant care optimized. Some of the processes of everyday work have also been (partly) automated. This applies
mostly for processes like ventilation, heating and cooling or irrigation. Through these solutions, especially with sensors that deliver information, growers get a better understating of the state of the greenhouse and plants and act accordingly or give the necessary commands.
The current status quo in which processes are partly automated is currently in a state of change – more tasks and even whole greenhouses are being automated. Growers are looking into these solutions as labor costs rise and availability decreases, costs for resources rise and external influences like covid or war are impacting everyday business. In 2018 already, 90 percent of German strawberry and asparagus farmers complained about a drastic decrease in the number of harvesting workers . In the following years, this even worsened due to covid and the war in Ukraine. And this area is just an example – besides strawberries, all crops grown in greenhouses are harvested by hand. Including tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, some of the most popular vegetables in Germany and western Europe.
However, the availability of workers for plant care and picking is decreasing. Thus, growers are looking into different methods to ensure that their plants are still grown and picked – many are finding an answer in new innovations for the automation of labor-intensive tasks or even the full automation of the greenhouse.
This can mean the usage of drones, robots, or new software solutions in either some parts of the processes or the whole growth, plant care and yield. The latest solutions are going one step further in automation as the existing solutions – for example with robots or drones picking the fruit, automating plant care or UV-light treatment by driving through the greenhouse autonomously. Where sensors, software and technologies previously evaluated and then proposed actions, they can now implement them directly.
The Potential of Automation
“Looking at the necessities of automation, we see labor-intensive work to be automated first. Simply because finding workforce is what growers struggle most with today”, says Dolf van der Hoeven, Technical Commercial Director at Metazet Formflex.
The company provides solutions for horticulture and has recently introduced an autonomous platform for different applications. “What the most labor-intensive work is in a certain culture varies – for some plants it might be harvest, for some plants care or irrigation”, he adds.
In whatever way it is used, farm automation holds the potential of making farming more efficient. By saving resources like water and energy, farmers can also reduce costs through the use of technology.
Sustainability and Resilience
Technologies that suggest actions based on the state of the greenhouse, plants or weather can save more than 40% of energy, for example when adapting the temperatures for day and night, and thus money for the farmer . The same applies to water and pesticides, where smart farming technologies can lower the needed amount drastically.
New technologies especially support resilience when they make local production possible in the first place - for example because temperatures or conditions would otherwise not allow cultivation in the region. In this case, independence from products from abroad can be created, as well as independence from seasonal workers for the farmers.
Looking at resilience, another potential within automation is a higher quality of fruit. Due to the supply with the exact amount of water needed and little to no pesticides, fruit quality can increase. The amount of damaged or molded fruit can be decreased, which reduces food waste and loss for the grower.
What is holding it back?
So, why are not all greenhouses automated (yet)? Some of the major challenges in the implementation of automation and IoTon solutions are security factors, uncertainty about the return of invest, a lack of technical expertise and doubts about interoperability.
The lack of knowledge about technology is a major challenge that researchers have found needs to be tackled with communication and integration – keeping the farmers in mind while developing systems is immensely important for their later implementation. Focussing on the user interface in the case of digital products and providing solutions in local languages are the possible ways to overcome the challenge .
Dolf van der Hoeven knows this hurdle and is clear about where to start: “Our one all-in-one tip we give is to map all processes in the greenhouse or farm before automating them – look into all the steps that are currently being taken, their outcome and necessity. Like this, you are at the right place to start and can then think about which automation method is the best to start with. Also, there are experts that don’t sell you the automation of your overall system but have this in mind when implementing one step. Like this, you can continue the journey of automation later”. The next step after this first implementation could then be a chain of several autonomous systems that communicate with one another and form a chain that works efficiently, the expert at Metazet says.
If done efficiently and with a holistic approach, automation in greenhouses holds the potential for more sustainability and economic resilience for growers. The solutions we see today are broadly diversified and evolving further. The future solutions will change greenhouses even further – we will see them adapting to circumstances given, such as rising cost and decreasing labor availability.
 Subeesh, A., und C. R. Mehta. „Automation and Digitization of Agriculture Using Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things“. Artificial Intelligence in Agriculture 5 (1. Januar 2021): 278–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aiia.2021.11.004.