TUCSON, Ariz. — Droughts, rising temperatures, supply chain challenges and a war in Europe's breadbasket are making it harder to feed the planet.
But vertical farming is one possible solution: It happens indoors in a controlled environment, without the need for soil.
For years, students and researchers at the University of Arizona have studied how vertical farming can save space, time, and something scarce here in the desert: water.
"The amount of plants you can grow in a tiny footprint is insane," said bisoystems engineering graduate student Christopher Kaufmann.
Now UArizona is helping push the practice forward—literally. The Life Grow (LG) Bot puts a vertical farming frame on wheels.
It was invented by professor Joel Cuello and his team of graduate students. A seven-member team of engineering students designed a prototype for their Capstone Engineering Project, which was awarded the 'Roche Most Innovative Engineering Design' at UA Design Day 2022 in May.
The LG Bot continuously pumps water to the plants—which in this case are romaine lettuce. Any water not used by the plants is recycled.
"And we've tailored the nutrient solution to kind of be ideal for that specific crop," Kaufmann explained.
Above are specialized LED lights that simulate sunlight.
The process allows places usually without access to fresh produce—such as inner cities or 'Food Deserts'—to grow it themselves.
"You don't have to worry about [plants] having a long shelf life, and you can kind of supplement for quality once again," said Kaufmann. "And so, you get things that taste better and are better for you."
The LG Bot can be controlled, but also has automatic navigation software and sensors.
But the question remains: Why put wheels on vertical farming?
"The idea is to have some big warehouse, whether it be multiple levels or multiple rooms. Each room having some sort of different growing conditions, whether it be different humidity, different lighting levels.... something like that," said electrical and computer engineering graduate student Diego Moscoso. "The purpose of these robots is the move the plants from room to room, according to the growth stage that the plants are currently in."
These students say an entire fleet of the robots could mean growing lots of food, with a lot fewer people—reducing labor costs in the process.
"We could feed an entire town, an entire community," Moscoso said.
And they say, perhaps, even grow them on a space station or another planet.
"Where we are able to move these robots around from room to room and have a self-sustaining growing process that needs the absolute minimum amount of human interaction to actually get these plants grow," said Moscoso.
Like the plants, the hope is that this technology continues to grow.
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