Remember when the year 2020 was thought of as the distant future, complete with dreams of flying cars and walking holograms? It’s hard to believe that 2020 is now only six years away, and we’re still a far cry from the futuristic world promised in the science-fiction stories we read growing up.
Yet, at the current rate of technological advancement and the drive to automate business processes to improve efficiencies, there are sure to be many changes for growers in the next few years. Those efficiencies will be necessary as we predict consumer flower sales to at least double by the year 2020, due in part to industry initiatives such as Greenhouse Grower’s GROW Summit, which aim to create programs that appeal to the younger generation of consumers. This demand will drive greenhouse operations to be more productive and efficient.
What exactly will the greenhouse business of the future look like? What progress will make a greenhouse’s day-to-day operations more streamlined, accurate and cost-effective? Looking to the year 2020, here are some predictions of a grower’s typical day, including the types of tools that could be available.
eGlasses: The Greenhouse Tool Of 2020
First, let’s talk about the tool we believe will drive much of the new technology for growers in the future. With the invention of Google Glass in the present day, we can expect to see vast improvements to hardware and software. Currently, Google Glass allows users to essentially wear a computer like a pair of glasses (eGlasses), with a transparent display screen that projects information directly to the user’s eye while being controlled primarily by voice activation. Regardless of whether this hardware is made by Google or another company, we foresee eGlasses becoming the norm by 2020, especially for productivity enhancement. The applications for such a device in a greenhouse are nearly limitless due to the portable nature of the glasses and the ability to control it completely hands-free.
While enjoying a morning cup of coffee, the grower of the future will don a pair of eGlasses and see a greenhouse to-do list for that day, along with a readout of the greenhouse’s climate controls, all beamed to the device remotely. Since greenhouse climate can already be viewed and controlled through mobile phone apps, this advancement is certainly not a great stretch of the imagination. This device allows growers to go about their morning routine hands-free.
Once the tweaking of climate controls is complete, it’s time to give the assistant growers their tasks for the day through voice commands on the eGlasses. By the time the grower arrives at the greenhouse, everyone has their responsibilities assigned for the day.
Rather than carrying around walkie-talkies, employees receive their tasks over smart watches, which every employee wears. These watches display the next task to complete and expected time it will take to complete it. The watches contain a microphone and speakers, allowing for employees to communicate with one another. The watch also contains a location tracker, so the grower/manager can see where everyone is located within the greenhouse at any given time.
Walking through the greenhouse, the grower can get a complete history of each bench by viewing a specialized bench tag through the eGlasses. All spray records, growth regulator applications, moisture levels, etc., are automatically compiled from the sensors inside the bench and displayed onscreen. The central computer system keeps track of what chemicals are used and when. In addition, the computer automatically calculates the projected crop timing for each bench, which takes into consideration chemical applications (that can have an impact on growing times). All of this information is displayed on the eGlasses for any bench the grower views.
Recommended actions (if any) are displayed, which can always be overridden by the grower if desired. If there are no overrides, the system schedules the actions automatically. This saves the grower and workers countless hours of documenting and making crop adjustments.
The watering list for the day has become automatic — sensors in each bench measure the moisture content of pots and fertilizer levels. The sensor compares actual measurements with desired water content, along with EC levels, and waters accordingly. The weather forecast for the next two days is considered by the computer so no bench will become too dry or stay too wet.
PGRs and pesticides are applied through pre-programmed spray booms that are connected via chemical lines to the mixing tanks in the chemical room. The booms run along a track to spray the appropriate benches. The boom and its lines are automatically purged and cleaned at the end of the program cycle, then the next chemical is mixed, with the process repeating itself until all crops have received their PGRs and pesticides.
Specialized Tools For Growers
Soil samples are no longer sent out, as the grower now has a handheld device that measures each element contained in the soil. This information is quickly transmitted to the office computer for analysis. Pythium and other pathogens are also detected, if present.
Within the fertilizer is a harmless tracing agent that becomes exposed when a pest feeds on a plant. The tracing agent can only be seen through special glasses. This gives the grower an instant overview of pest populations that can either be controlled with pesticides or with biological predators. Biological predators are ordered directly through the eGlasses; no consultant is needed, and orders are processed and sent out next day. No pest needs to go unchecked.
The propagation range is more intensely monitored. Sensors for damp-off and botrytis are strategically placed throughout the range and warnings are sent directly to the smart watch of the assistant grower who is closest, so they can immediately react to any spread of such issues. Temperature, humidity and light levels are constantly monitored. The climate control system is designed to instantly compensate for any changes so seedlings are not put through any stress whatsoever.
The grower is also monitored — there is a location sensor on the eGlasses that indicates whether he or she has visited each range every day. If by 4:00 p.m. there is a range that wasn’t visited, a reminder is displayed on the eGlasses.
Despite the technological advancements we’ll see in the future, there will never be a total replacement for the human senses. A grower must view the crops daily and not be totally dependent on technology.
All inventory is monitored and tracked through advanced RFID tags. The central computer system will know when the plant leaves the greenhouse and will update inventory levels. Through inventory systems that are integrated with garden centers, growers will know when their plants are sold to the end consumer. This gives total visibility of supply and demand and allows the setting of automatic reorder points, which ties into the growing schedule.
As 3D printers are already becoming widespread in today’s world, in 2020 they will be commonplace. 3D printers are used to create solid objects using an additive layering process, and will be used in a greenhouse to create print parts and pieces. Clips for shading/vents, irrigation parts, potting machine parts, etc., will all be available for printing. This allows for very little downtime when a machine is broken. No more waiting for small parts to arrive from the distributor. The grower can now print the necessary parts immediately and get the machines up and running. Keep in mind that with all this mechanization within the greenhouse, being able to quickly service these machines will be crucial.
Greenhouse Energy And Waste Recycling
The greenhouse of the future will need to cut energy costs and improve efficiency to stay competitive. One limitless source of energy is obviously solar. Currently, MIT researchers are working on high-efficiency transparent solar panels, which capture some light wavelengths into a solar cell while still allowing some to get through. We could see this technology being built into greenhouse glass and greenhouse poly to create a huge surface area that can gather solar energy. The shading system is also built into the layers of glass or poly, which serves two purposes. First, it will automatically darken and lighten depending on the desired crop light levels. Second, when it darkens, it allows more light to be captured into the solar cells, which can then be used to power the greenhouse.
Recycling of wasted resources will also be very important, from both an environmental and cost-savings perspective. Fossil fuels will obviously still be used six years from now, but we will be running lower on supply, and prices will surely reflect that fact. Today’s technologies will be improved upon, leading to more efficient heat-storage tanks, as well as large storage batteries, that store any excess unused energy and deliver it back to the greenhouse at night when it is needed. Waste water purifying technology will also be improved upon, and any waste water will be decontaminated and pumped back into the greenhouse.
The End Goal
There are clearly far more possibilities for the greenhouse business of the future than those listed above. With 2020 in the not-so-distant future, we can examine current trends that tell us what life as a future grower will look like.
For example, greenhouse structures themselves are continuing to become wider and taller, and older structures are often torn down in favor of newer, more efficient and technologically advanced greenhouse ranges. At the end of the day, the goal of utilizing technology in the greenhouse is to save time and improve accuracy as a means to maintain profitability in this industry. The future promises many new ways to help achieve that goal.