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Vertical Farming: Remote Monitoring and Control Automation

By Andrew Erickson

February 3, 2021


Vertical farming is one of the biggest trends in agriculture in 2021. As Earth races toward a population of 8 billion people, maintaining adequate food production is an ever-growing concern.

What's more, consider the demands of people living in urban centers. People want "organic" produce. They push more and more for locally grown fruits and vegetables, are driving the farming industry in new directions.

Vertical farming
Vertical farming is very promising and sounds like the farm of the future. However, being able to remote monitor and control its technologies will make it a reliable infrastructure.

Traditional Farming Has Its Limits

How can you grow sufficient food to serve a large metropolitan area without going outside the radius that can be considered "local"?

Traditional farming, with flat plots of arable land, can't do the job beyond a certain level of density. There's just too little land and too many people to service with traditional farming methods.

Vertical Farming Can Load Food Supply Chains...

This dynamic gave birth to indoor vertical farming technologies. Vertical farming is "Controlled Environment Agriculture" (CEA), where nothing is left to chance:

  • Multi-level ("vertical") growing allows more output per square foot.
  • Natural sunlight gives way to - or is assisted by - artificial lighting delivered by LED lights.
  • Air temperature is carefully controlled to optimize growth rate and yield.
  • The absence of soil (in hydroponics and aquaponics) minimizes growth variables.
  • The need for pesticides is reduced compared to outdoor growing.

...But You Face a New Set of Challenges

As wonderful as vertical farming might be, there are problems that you must address.

Consider that:

  1. Energy requirements for indoor/vertical farming are tremendously higher. You have a much greater risk associated with poor energy management.
  2. Variables that affect growth - like temperature, light, and water - are under your control. If you don't manage everything properly, Mother Nature won't have your back.
  3. You might be growing newly legal drug crops. From security to legal compliance, strictly regulated crops present a host of new challenges to overcome.

Remote Monitoring and Control Automation is Your Answer

The answer to these problems is well known in other industries. Phone companies, internet providers, manufacturers, and wastewater treatment plants have dealt with them for decades.

Strangely, the push to artificially controlled farming techniques makes agriculture quite similar to telecom or manufacturing operations. You have a large area to monitor and limited staff. You need help from an automated detection and control system.

That means we can take a page from telecom & manufacturing playbooks to get better results for our vertical farm.

Monitoring & Control Revolve Around Simple Sensors and Outputs

Many of the sensors and outputs we can use for monitoring farm operations can be pulled directly from telecom/manufacturing operations. Others can be tweaked slightly to deal with unique properties (especially moisture) present in farming:

  1. Air Temperature Sensors can be used in several ways. Most critically, you'll want to monitor the ambient air temperature around your plants. Use temperature sensors liberally, as you're liable to have hot spots and cold spots in your facility. You can also place temperature sensors in very strategic locations, like on the supply and return vents of any climate control system. That can help you monitor the efficiency of a heating/cooling system by measuring the before-and-after temperature differential.
  2. Water Temperature Sensors help you deliver closely regulated hydration (usually containing important nutrients) to your crops. You want to know that your water is at a "just right" heat level.
  3. Water pH Sensors are important to make sure you don't chemically burn roots. You might also detect a problem with fertilizer concentration that is detectable as a pH fluctuation.
  4. Air Flow Sensors help you maintain adequate ventilation. They're great as general-area monitors, but also when placed on supply vents and fans. In fact, you can find sensors that simultaneously monitor both air temperature and airflow to paint a good picture with just a single compact sensor box.
  5. Door, Motion, and other Security Sensors keep track of the human element. This is particularly important when dealing with newly legal drug crops, where only certain authorized people should be present in certain areas.

Take a look at DPS line of D-Wire sensors for remote monitoring.

Temperature and humidity sensor
With the Temp/Humidity sensor, you can efficiently track temperature and humidity levels to keep inside your vertical farming facility.

Collect Sensor Data and Control Your Systems with Smart RTUs

With a collection of sensors placed strategically throughout your vertical farm (or similar facility), you now need a nearby box that will pull the data together. Depending on the layout of your operation, one "Remote Terminal Unit" (RTU) can theoretically handle dozens of different sensors.

Choosing an RTU revolves around a few key factors, namely:

  1. Where you will mount your RTU: In a server rack? In a small equipment cabinet? On a wall?
  2. What sensor standards you need to support: It's common for sensors to be available in 0-5 VDC, 4-20 mA, and protocol standards like MODBUS. Make sure your RTU is compatible with all the standards you need.
  3. What control (output) capacity will handle your facility properly: This can include dry contact closures (relays), analog outputs (variable voltage or current), or protocol-based commands (ex. MODBUS).
  4. What happens after your RTU collects data: Do you want to send data to a central collector? This is common. You might also want to dial a specific employee or send SMS text messages in the event of a major incident.

If you want to equip your vertical farm with an RTU that will keep up with your requirements, then look no further than the NetGuardian 832A G5. This RTU gives you 32 discrete alarm inputs, 8 analog inputs, and 8 control relays in one single box. The 832A G5 is sure to provide you with powerful features to make your job easier.

832A G5
With the Netguardian 832A G5 will turn your sensor data into actionable information.

Bring Everything Together Under One Monitoring and Control (SCADA) Umbrella

OK, so now you have data from sensors being collected by your RTUs. You have control outputs from that same RTUs to exert remote control over your systems. What next?

You now need to establish a central master/manager that oversees everything and displays real-time status for you. In SCADA terms, this is the main "Human-Machine Interface" (HMI).

Just like when planning your sensors and RTUs, compatibility is key. Whatever protocols your RTUs support (ex. DNP3, SNMP, MODBUS), your master must support all of them to create one cohesive system. That's the only way you can monitor and control everything without making your head spin - or hiring more people than you need.

The T/Mon is a multiprotocol master station that collects data from multiple different types of equipment, throughout many manufacturers and protocols. It also displays the state of your entire network in one intuitive interface, eliminating the need for specialized terminals. With T/Mon, compatibility will not be a problem for you anymore.

The T/Mon LNX is a multiprotocol master station that brings all your alarm information into one single user-friendly web interface.

The Bottom Line

The end goal of any remote monitoring and control system is to detect and prevent issues that will ultimately impact your bottom line. Having efficient RTUs and master station will provide a more thorough understanding of the overall condition of your vertical farming technologies.

Reach out to us if you have questions on the details of vertical farming monitoring and control, and the types of monitoring devices that might work best for you.

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 17 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and opt...