Top 5 AgTech trends from Indoor Ag-Con Asia

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The GrowFlux team recently returned from Indoor Ag-Con Asia in Singapore. With the conference in its fourth year in Asia, established indoor farms, tech companies, researchers, entrepreneurs, and government officials gathered to share the latest developments in indoor ag-tech. Here is a summary of our key take-aways.

Sensing

Sensors play a critical role in indoor farms - especially indoor vertical farms challenged with thermal stratification, causing different micro-climates throughout the controlled environment. Going beyond conventional sensors, hyperspectral cameras and biosensors for plant hormones - both methods to directly detect plant responses- were featured by researchers developing new technologies for the industry.

Scalability

Automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and IoT were discussed heavily at Indoor Ag-Con Asia - all technologies that are key to scaling and are currently used in profitable indoor farms, and all technologies indoor farms must master to achieve scalability.

IoT

With many sessions touching on IoT in established indoor farms as though it was an afterthought, it is clear the role of connected devices in indoor farming is firmly rooted in the industry. GrowFlux discussed the importance of using robust IoT technology - such as time series database technology, standards, and scalable technologies - to enable an AI powered future of indoor farming.

Lighting

Lighting was among the most discussed topics at Indoor Ag-Con Asia, with speakers from Sananbio, National Taiwan University, Signify, GrowFlux, and others giving talks focused on lighting, spectrum, and controls. The significance of crop specific spectral control was highlighted throughout many presentations, underscoring the impact GrowFlux’s tunable lighting technology in the industry.

Seeds for Indoor Ag

Several presenters discussed the emergence of new seed developed for indoor cultivation which holds the promise of higher profitability, considering most of the conventional seed available today is adapted for the challenges that come with outdoor cultivation, such as disease and pest resistance.

All About Finishing

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GrowFlux's FluxScale series fixtures are capable of delivering broad spectrum PAR containing a very high proportion of blue light, which is used to deliver Finishing light treatments in the 12-96 hours prior to harvest. Finishing Light Formulas boost terpene and resin content in crops by triggering protective mechanisms within the flowers. 

Unlike other LED fixtures on the market, FluxScale is capable of delivering this spectrum at full intensity exceeding 800 μmol/m2/s, allowing a finishing treatment without stunting plant growth. Other LED fixtures only deliver a similar spectrum at low intensity, resulting in diminished growth and shade avoidance responses. 

The GrowFlux Cloud Platform includes several pre-configured Finishing Light Formulas containing spectrum settings and lighting schedules shown to enhance terpene and resin content. Check out our whitepaper for more information:

FluxScale Finishing Spectrum

Lighting controls: Three things to consider when selecting a horticultural lighting solution

GrowFlux Wireless Access Point

GrowFlux Wireless Access Point

When planning a large scale Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) facility such as a hybrid lit greenhouse or indoor cultivation space, network resilience, network set up time, and installation cost are important factors to consider in selecting a horticultural lighting solution. Some lighting solutions on the market require zone controllers and data cables, which adds labor and cost to the installation process. Most wireless lighting control solutions require a multi step network setup process for each fixture, which adds up to a significant amount of time for facilities requiring hundreds or thousands of fixtures. 

For wireless control solutions, network resilience is an important factor to consider for large scale facilities. Unreliable lighting network connectivity can grind a large facility to a halt, sucking up time and resources to troubleshoot network issues all while the lighting solution is not performing as designed.

AetherMesh wireless module used in GrowFlux lighting and sensing products

AetherMesh wireless module used in GrowFlux lighting and sensing products

Only GrowFlux offers AetherMesh wireless controls on all of its products. AetherMesh was designed specifically for large scale CEA facilities and solves the issues discussed above:

Network resilience:

  • AetherMesh communicates on Sub 1-GHz frequencies and utilizes a high efficiency, high gain antenna, ensuring that wireless signals easily penetrate through dense buildings, multiple walls, concrete, and warehouses containing dense arrays of shelving.

  • Line of sight range of 1+ mile (1.6+ km) is possible between AetherMesh devices; indoor range through walls is typically upwards of 500ft (150+ m).

  • AetherMesh wireless mesh links self heal. If a device has trouble routing a message through one route, the mesh automatically finds another path through which to route messages. All network nodes maintain multiple network paths through which to route messages, choosing the most power and traffic efficient route in real time.

  • AetherMesh splits the 902-928 MHz band into 50 channels; the network automatically channel hops communication across these channels to avoid interference.

  • When we communicate lighting settings to a zone of fixtures, we send up to 90 days of scheduled control. This ensures that fixtures know exactly what they should be doing in the event of communication failure. Fixtures immediately get back to the correct scheduled control after any power failures.

Network setup time:

  • GrowFlux products incorporating AetherMesh wireless control set up rapidly out of the box - simply power on the device for the first time within 10 feet of your Access Point, and the device will securely join and remember the network within 30 seconds. AetherMesh network setup does not involve passwords, codes, IP address, or any other complicated network setup steps.

  • Connecting hundreds or thousands of fixtures happens as fast as the units are unpacked. Unpacking and initial power on occurs near an Access Point prior to hanging the fixture in the grow space.

  • Zone definition is entirely software based with our browser based interface - zones are not defined through network settings.

Installation cost:

  • One Access Point can support networks upwards of 1000 devices, significantly reducing cost

  • Zone definition is entirely software based, so hardware zone controllers are eliminated.

  • Every fixture on the network operates as a full power wireless mesh node (battery powered sensors perform limited extension of the mesh network to conserve battery life). This means repeaters and additional gateways are not required for large networks.

  • Since GrowFlux products are fully wireless, the installation labor and cost associated with data cables and controllers is eliminated.

Coefficient of Utilization (CU) explained

Photosynthetic Photon Flux Density (PPFD) is an important factor to consider when determining how an LED grow light will perform in a cultivation facility. Several factors play into PPFD, including the design of the fixture array, fixture height above the canopy, intensity of the fixture, and most importantly, the angular distribution of light exiting the fixture - which largely defines the 'uniformity' of the fixture. 

Coefficient of Utilization (CU) is a measure of how much light exiting the fixture will fall on a canopy area of a certain size; CU is an important factor to consider in designing an energy efficient Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) facility. CU is expressed as a ratio of the total light emitted by the fixture to the light that falls on an area of canopy of a defined size. It is important to note that the light that does not fall on the canopy directly under the fixture may either be wasted (to walls or floor), or may fall on canopy area adjacent to the fixture, depending on the design of the facility. 

The only accurate way to determine CU is by simulation, since each measurement technique previously discussed is not without its limitations. When we designed our FluxScale reference design fixtures, we simulated the entire fixture in a ray tracing simulation tool which uses Monte Carlo calculation methods and ray data from LED manufacturers to calculate the light output of a 3D model of the light, accounting for all of the materials in the product, each LED, operating and drive conditions, and geometry of the fixture. 

Reflectors were designed with ray tracing techniques, ensuring highly uniform lighting on the canopy

Reflectors were designed with ray tracing techniques, ensuring highly uniform lighting on the canopy

Calculating CU from a simulation is simple; first calculate the entire light output of the fixture, then measure the output incident on various sized planes at different distances from the fixture. The ratio of these values is representative of the percentage of light that hits a plane of a certain size at a certain distance. As you will see, increasing the distance of the plane from the fixture results in a lower coefficient. Shown below are CU values for FluxScale 600TL on a 5x5 foot plane at three distances. Adding the reflector significantly increases the CU. 

It is important to understand that the light that does not fall on the canopy directly under the fixture is not always wasted. With efficient CEA facility design practices, this light can be reflected off highly reflective walls or will fall on canopy area adjacent to the fixture, depending on the design of the lighting array.

1ft distance2ft distance3ft distance
FluxScale reference design0.890.680.47
FluxScale ref design with Reflector0.990.820.60

This table might be easier to understand visually:

The reflector is designed to result in highly uniform lighting across large canopy areas, with whole array Coefficient of Utilization (CU) exceeding 0.95, depending on wall reflectivity and array layout.

The reflector is designed to result in highly uniform lighting across large canopy areas, with whole array Coefficient of Utilization (CU) exceeding 0.95, depending on wall reflectivity and array layout.

Replacing your HPS lighting with LED

A greenhouse with lots of HPS lights

A greenhouse with lots of HPS lights

Introduction

GrowFlux isn't the first LED manufacturer to tout LED technology to stalwart growers who have stuck with high pressure sodium (HPS) lights over the years. The most common reasons for not adopting LED we hear from growers are:

  • I'm waiting for the next generation of LED products to come out
  • There are too many outlandish claims made by LED manufacturers and not enough standardization
  • The spectrum isn't "right"
  • The efficiency claims aren't valid
  • I need the radiated heat for my crops in the shoulder seasons

We understand the concerns these growers have, and want to present an honest picture of our products so these customers can make the best decisions for their own situation. We hope to show that our FluxScale 600 top light is the industry's best HPS replacement fixture, but we want our customers to make this decision for themselves. Lets go into some detail:

Spectrum differences

Yes it is true, LED horticultural lights DO have a different spectrum compared to HPS lights, which are commonly used for flowering due to the high levels of red light. HPS lights also cover nearly the entire PAR spectrum, while many red/blue LED lights are missing PAR spectrum in the middle of the PAR range.

With GrowFlux tunable broad spectrum technology, growers can choose the spectrum that works for their unique situation while covering the entire PAR range from 400-700nm. In fact, we have developed light formulas which mimic the HPS spectrum nearly identically. While our spectrum is not an exact fit to the HPS spectral curve, the key aspect to our spectrum match is that the proportion of light in each spectrum band is very similar to HPS. This results in predictable flowering results for customers whom are accustomed to HPS fixtures. 

Flowering

Having covered the spectral differences between HPS and GrowFlux LED products, there are a few other elements to touch on related to flowering. Since HPS lights are not tunable, precise manipulations to flowering spectrum are not possible. In addition, GrowFlux lighting products incorporate far red LEDs, allowing growers to further manipulate phytochrome response in short day flowering plants. 

Efficiency & maintenance

The most efficient HPS light on the market produces 2.2umol / watt with a brand new bulb. There, we said it - HPS lights are pretty efficient. Not all LED manufacturers want their prospective customers aware of this fact because many have trouble passing even 2.0 umol / watt efficiency. Keep in mind though that this efficiency figure is with a brand new bulb, and as that bulb progresses through its useful lifespan, the efficiency drops far below 2.0 umol / watt. With high efficiency bulb prices ranging from $70-90 each, and approximately annual bulb changes, the maintenance costs add up with HPS lights. 

Differences in light penetration

We have heard concerns over light penetration into the canopy with LED products from some growers. Since there is a lot of variation in LED fixture optics across manufacturers at the moment, this is not a surprise. We can speak to this specifically as it relates to GrowFlux products; our FluxScale 600AC version 2.0 fixture contains 318 LEDs with an approximate 130 degree beam pattern in a tight array (with outstanding thermal performance).

This LED array packs a serious penetrative punch directly below the fixture (the light from approximately 0-30 degrees from fixture center) . At high angles (between 60-90 degrees from the fixture center), we direct this light around this central hotspot on the canopy with our high efficiency FluxScale reflectors, resulting in highly uniform light. Our reflectors happen to be made of the same Alanod 9033AG material many HPS reflectors use. 

Heat & heat stress

Finally we have heard a lot about heating greenhouses with HPS lights - that the radiated heat from HPS lights is a side benefit to growers in cold regions such as Canada, the Northern US, Scandinavia, and the UK. While heating greenhouses with HPS lights might be a simple solution, we would like to point out that the efficiency is relatively poor from a lifecycle point of view, and this can cost growers a lot of money over time. 

GrowFlux begins FCC testing

We recently tested our AetherMesh IoT wireless modules for compliance with US, EU, and Canadian wireless regulations! Compliance with these regulations ensures that our wireless tech won't emit electromagnetic radiation and radio frequency radiation which might interfere with other equipment and communications. Thanks to the hard work of our engineers, our AetherMesh module passed all of the required tests on the first attempt!

Antenna directed at GrowFlux sensor
AetherMesh Module

Horticulture lighting standard ANSI/ASABE S640

The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) published the first of three standards for the horticulture lighting industry on August 8, 2017, bringing much needed codification to horticulture lighting technology. ANSI/ASABE Standard S640 titled "Quantities and Units of Electromagnetic Radiation for Plants (Photosynthetic Organisms)" establishes quantities and units used to describe light in relation to plants. Standards are important to the industry because they help everyone get on the same page with regard to the language used to describe the technology, the units of measure for lighting, metrics used to market products, and methods of bench-marking performance. 

The first of three standards, ANSI/ASABE S640, covers units of measure used to describe horticulture lighting. We took a look a the standard and summarized some key points:

1. PAR (photosynthetic active radiation) is a unit of measure of radiation relevant to plant growth, falls in the wavelength range of 400-700nm, and is expressed in two terms:

  • PPF - Photosynthetic Photon Flux - PAR emitted by a source, measured in units of micromoles
  • PPFD - Photosynthetic Photon Flux Density - PAR that falls on a unit of surface area

2. There are several ways to describe the wavelength portion of a PAR measure; these include Photosynthetic (400-700nm), UV (100-400nm), Far Red (700-800), and spectral (100-800nm). This results in terms such as Far Red Photon Flux Density, UV Photon Flux Density, or Spectral Photon Flux Density - in addition to Photosynthetic Photon Flux Density (PPFD). 

3. A measure may use two high level types of units to describe radiation: Radiate units (a quantity of energy) or Quantum units (a quantity of photons). This means Photosynthetic Photon Flux and Photosynthetic Radiant Flux both describe the same thing, however the first is expressed in micromoles (or µmol, a quantity of photons) and the latter is expressed in watts (W, a unit of energy). 

4. Far red light falls between 700 and 800nm

5. UV light is divided into three bands:

  • UVA - 315-400nm
  • UVB - 280-315nm
  • UVC - 100-280nm

6. There are two distinct ways to plot a PAR spectrum:

  • SPD, Spectral Power Distribution, a plot of PAR against wavelength, expressed in the units of radiant watts
  • SQD, Spectral Quantum Distribution, a plot of PAR against wavelength, expressed in the units of micromoles

7. Daily Light Interval is a measure of PPFD over a 24 hour period

Discussion

The standard discusses rationale behind several decisions, and notes that there is currently no accepted interpolation of bands across the PAR spectrum (as is the case with the UV spectrum). We have provided a brief summary of key components of the standard; we suggest readers purchase and read the full standard for a comprehensive overview of the units used to describe PAR. 

Whats next?

  • The Design Lights Consortium (DLC) will publish draft policy for energy efficiency in horticultural lighting in September 2018. This will create uniform requirements for energy rebates and incentives among utility providers
  • ASABE will publish the next horticulture lighting standard some time in 2018

Further reading: