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SPF Spotlight: Autonomous Controlled-Environment Growth Chamber Display

Like a high-tech vending machine, but with lettuce!

A group of McGill Bioresource Engineering students have developed a project, funded by the Sustainability Projects Fund, that has installed the first autonomous controlled-environment growth chamber display on the Macdonald campus.  Pierce Dias Carlson, Rachael Warner, Leo McGuire and Connor Miller each offer a unique skill-set in successfully creating a productive autonomous growth chamber.

This project encompasses the design and construction of a fully autonomous vegetable production system. An enclosed system, the display will contain a variety of cutting-edge agricultural technologies, allowing for the irrigation, lighting, and HVAC systems to operate independent of human interaction. The transparent display showcases the different stages of plant growth, and how the technology allows it to occur.  

“Our hope was that the system will educate visitors on the current advancements in urban agriculture technology and provide a moderate supply of fresh produce as an interactive feature. This technology can eventually be scaled up, for mass production, or brought into the home, to allow for fresh local produce production year round.”

According to Dias Carlson and Warner, most problems that arise while completing this project lie in the technological area of expertise. McGuire, their 3D printer expert, and Miller, their coding expert, are able to quickly resolve those problems encountered throughout the technology’s development.

While the chamber is not yet producing heads of lettuce, the team is expecting food production by the end of September. Once it starts, it should have no problem maintaining production. Using a closed-loop, hydroponic irrigation system, leaks should be avoided, but until the technological issues are resolved and electrical parts are sealed, they are monitoring the irrigation system intently.

Once the chamber is in full production, it should produce approximately five heads of lettuce a week. Dias Carlson and Warner expressed their expectation to possibly expand its production to other microgreens like herbs and other types of lettuce.  “It is hard to grow some stuff, however, due to lack of space in this medium for larger or longer roots.”

The chamber is meant to lead as an example of sustainable, efficient agricultural technology that will be used as a teaching tool, the design of which could be expanded to produce larger quantities with greater diversity in lettuce species.

Dias Carlson explains that if this chamber were to be expanded, “It would be a super compact, 3D grid, growing lettuce. Current vertical farms are warehouses, three stories tall, with rows and rows of hydroponic lettuce. If expanded, it would be like that but more condensed because you’ll have robots doing the work instead of people. Better space efficiency is what is really achieved with this.”

“The less people that are involved, the less risk of disease and the less you have to spend on labor,” Warner elaborates on the benefits of automation in agriculture. “They also require very little fertilizer.  Further, there is a lot of choice in what materials can be used for the chamber, meaning more sustainable materials can be used in its construction.”

Displaying this chamber demonstrates a more sustainable agricultural technology. While automation is a contentious topic as more and more jobs in agriculture are being automated throughout the economy, Warner and Dias Carlson argue that automation is a sustainable alternative in some settings for at least some aspects of agriculture.

Controlled-environment agriculture is a method of sustainable vegetable production during winter months. Most vegetables in winter months are produced using energy-inefficient, transparent greenhouses or transported via diesel-powered vehicles.

It also showcases the ongoing McGill research of these technologies and their potential uses in northern Canada, throughout which many communities lack access to affordable produce most of the year. “It is very difficult to grow outside of a two-month growing season and can cost more than $7 per pound to ship produce north” Dias Carlson estimates. Requiring very little labor input, just one of these chambers (most likely different than the McGill prototype) could provide one community with enough produce every week.

The display of the technologies of autonomous controlled-environment growth provide to the Macdonald Farm Community Engagement Center an educational benefit with regards to controlled-environment agriculture and sustainable food production.

Dias Carlson explains that the “lower part of display will be a big informational panel, just like a museum exhibit.  At the Center, we’re going to have a grand ceremony and work with the museum staff to explain the chamber to visitors.”

Dias Carlson and Warner seem enthusiastic about the potential educational opportunities this chamber could partake in.  They proposed school tours of the controlled environment, at the end of which, they will build their own salads, using the lettuce grown in the chamber, redefining the concept ‘farm-to-table’.

Automation in agriculture is a highly researched area of interest at the moment. Thanks to these students and their decision to apply to the SPF, McGill now has its first autonomous controlled-environment growth chamber and display.  

 

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