Dell takes a fresh look at IoT with Aerofarms

Dell takes a fresh look at IoT with Aerofarms

Dell has joined forces with agtech start-up Aerofarms to propagate IoT and data science in the business of growing greens. 

At Dell’s IQT event in New York this week, Andy Rhodes, vice president of IoT edge computing at Dell, was joined on stage by David Rosenberg, CEO and founder of AeroFarms, to discuss how a smart warehouse full of plants exemplifies a forward-thinking IoT strategy.

‘Disruptor’ is probably a term that’s thrown around too easily in the world of technology – but in the case of AeroFarms, it’s hard to argue with that description. The company is a specialist in what it calls ‘vertical farming‘, an emerging form of agriculture that combines data science with horticulture to grow crops indoors. The result is staggering: The warehouse is 130 to 390 times more productive than a conventional farm, while using 95 percent less water.

Dell takes fresh look at IoT with Aerofarms
The Aerofarms system of vertical farming (Credit: Aerofarms)

Read more: Agtech start-up Arable to measure crops and weather with IoT

AeroFarms’ IoT-enabled vision

AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg is on a mission to disrupt traditional agriculture. But it’s not necessarily out of a love for innovation or a desire for profit. There are more important things at stake here. “We have big problems that, as a species, we have to solve,” he said.

“We’ve lost a third of our arable land in the past 40 years. Seventy percent of our fresh water goes into agriculture. Seventy percent of fresh water contamination comes from agriculture. If you want to address water security, you need to address agriculture. Technology and data science is a big way that we’re going to get there.”

Food waste is another issue that needs tackling. Rosenberg estimates that as much as 60 percent of greens in the US spoil before they are consumed. AeroFarms’s solution is to have vertical farms disrupting traditional supply chains around the world, providing fresh vegetables to major distribution routes and population centers.

Read more: Dell Technologies unveils new IoT strategy in New York

Harvesting data is the perfect recipe

Instead of using soil, water and sunlight, AeroFarms’ vertical crops are exposed to the light spectrum through LEDs, to precise nutrients through a special kind of cloth, and to hydration through a closely monitored mist.

AeroFarms’ vertical farm in Newark, New Jersey, wouldn’t be anywhere near as efficient without help from Dell’s IoT team.

“If you think of the age-old question of nature vs nurture, the world of AgTech has focussed mostly on the genetics,” said Rosenberg. “Here, we don’t focus on the genetics as much as the environmental stresses. As funny as it sounds, we actually get a plant to eat differently, sleep differently and exercise differently to change their nutrient density and shelf life.”

“We’re a farming company, but we’re also a technology company. There are thousands of sensors in our warehouse, taking hundreds of thousands of data points. The details matter, the pennies matter, so we’re trying to understand how to optimize yield, and how we can stress a plant [in the right way].”

This notion of stressing plants to develop the perfect recipe wouldn’t be possible without Dell’s edge to core to cloud IoT architecture. “Stressing the plants drives tastes and textures, from temperature [changes] to humidity to PH,” said Rosenberg. “With the Dell team, we’re capturing this information. They asked us questions [that] we weren’t asking ourselves, such as what information needs to go to which people, at what time to be valuable?'”

“That information allows our R&D team to change our algorithm and the recipe of how we grow a plant. So what goes on the edge, what goes in the core, what goes in the cloud… going use case by use case to better develop our architecture and reduce costs.”

The system exemplifies Dell’s new distributed core IoT strategy, which seeks to move analytics closer to the ‘edge’, nearer to all of the various sensors in environments just like Aerofarms’ warehouse.

Read more: An inside view of start-up factory Dell Technologies Capital