Meet Servet Coskun, who eats, sleep and breathe green technology!
Servet is a specialist electronics engineer working for Data Respons subsidiary TechPeople. He has his heart set on technology and sustainability, and in his spare time he started his own start-up company with the mission to make Vertical Farming competitive compared to conventional farms and greenhouses. To achieve this goal, Servet designed a self-driving robot gardener called Watney.
Vertical Farming is high tech growing of crops in large windowless industrial buildings close to the world’s mega cities. Plants are stacked on shelves, with their roots in water instead of soil. Sunlight is replaced by LED light, while water enriched with nutrient circulates in a large, closed system. Thus Vertical Farming can achieve total independence from outside weather conditions. Crops can be harvested several times a year, and food can be produced close to where it is consumed.
Since Dickson D. Despommier, professor of microbiology at Columbia University, launched the concept of Vertical Farming in 1999, it has been quite popular among futurists, tech-trendsetters and others promoting new technology handling climate change. But so far it has been rather difficult to turn the Vertical Farming vision into reality.
Vertical farming has the potential to contribute to handling some of the great challenges the world is facing:
In 2050 Earth’s population will have increased from 7,5 to approx. 10 billion people, with two thirds of them living in urban areas. As a result, global food production has to increase by 70 per cent. This is where vertical farming could come in, not least because food could be produced directly within the mega cities of the future, thus eliminating the environmental impact of transport.
A step towards profitability
Until now Vertical Farming has been unable to evolve into large-scale production. The few attempts made soon brought one crucial weakness to light: profitability. Naturally, it dampens the enthusiasm, when a head of lettuce coming from Vertical Farming ends up being 10 to 20 times more expensive than a conventional one.
The main reason for this lack of profitability is the amount of manual handling needed. Vertical Farming is labour intensive and needs rigorous automation before it would make commercial sense to go from small experimental demonstrators to large-scale production facilities. This is where Watney the robot gardener comes in. Watney is being developed by electronics engineer Servet Coskun. He is designing the autonomous self-driving robot with a scissor lift to move the 250 x 80 cm plant trays stacked three stories high at the experimental facility.
Analysing operating procedures
For a year Servet and his company has run their own small-scale Vertical Farming facility together with a local company, operating a chain of restaurants and canteens, to find the most labour intensive operating procedures and find ways to automate them.
– We soon found out that handling of the trays should be at the top of the list, and to automate that procedure we designed Watney. It has scissor lift and forklift functionality and can drive autonomously to a plant tray. It then moves up to a desired height, takes out the tray and moves it to a new position.
– You can find similar self-driving robots in other domains, small-scale ones in pharmacies and big ones in the manufacturing industry and in logistics centers. We have designed Watney to fit the specific requirements of Vertical Farming, and I expect Watney to be ready for series production by the end of this year or early next year.
– In the long run we will to provide Watney with additional functionalities, like a camera monitoring the growth of the plants and checking for pests. Watney will also be able to cut the plants. Our long-term goal is to enable Watney to do everything a gardening worker does – and more.
Servet Coskun is primarily using off-the-shelf components to build Watney, an approach he picked up while studying and working for a company developing autonomous vehicles for industry and logistics. These engineers preferred to use standard components when possible, developing their own electronics only if they could come up with a more customized and cheaper solution.
– Watney will help us reach our goal, which is reducing manual handling in Vertical Farming with 50 per cent, says Servet Coskun. – That goal is very ambitious, but it is necessary to get there to make Vertical Farming compatible and scalable.
Watney needs help
However, Watney will not be able to achieve a 50 per cent reduction on its own. It needs help, and analysis of the work processes has highlighted other areas that could benefit from being automated. – While the handling of plant trays is at the top of our list, cleaning and preparing the system after a harvest comes in second. In Vertical Farming plants grow in a hydroponic system, in water circulating in a closed environment. They grow in large trays and after a harvest each tray has to be cleaned, and roots and other residue removed. That is done by connecting a secondary system, which cleans the trays using water with hydrogen peroxide added. After cleaning the tray is reconnected to the primary system. That process we want to automate as well.
Cumbersome calibration of sensors
– Another work intensive process is calibrating the sensors monitoring the closed system supplying the plants with water. In hydroponics the water has to have specific characteristics, e.g. a pH value of around 6.5, which is a little lower than ordinary drinking water. When growing, the plants emit basic substances causing the pH-level to rise. For the pH level to remain at 6.5 we have to continually measure it and reduce it if necessary.
– A pH sensor is very sensitive and requires calibration once a month, which is messy work. You remove it from its usual place in the main tank of the watering system. Then you clean it and put it in three different calibration resolutions. Each time you have to wait until it delivers a stable measurement, which you then register in your computer. Then you return it to the main water tank.
– On top of that, the sensor measuring the salinity of the water needs to be calibrated in two calibration resolutions, while the oxygen sensor needs one calibration resolution. A large Vertical Farming plant is equipped with a large number of sensors, so it makes good sense to find ways to automate the handling of them. The solution Servet is using today is range of sensors run on low power boards from Particle and communicate via WiFi.
By the way, Servet Coskun’s robot gardener is named after the main character in the 2015 Ridley Scott movie The Martian. In 2035, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is left behind on Mars, but manages to survive by growing vegetables in an improvised hi-tech nursery.
TechPeople is a consultancy house within the Data Respons group. The company is based in Copenhagen, and specialises in embedded solutions and IT business systems. TechPeople have specialists within hardware, software, mechanic development, project management and product testing. TechPeople’s innovative customers range from large international companies to creative start ups.