Gamechanger: How Artificial Intelligence Works in the Greenhouse
With increasing input prices, razor thin margins, and a revolving door of qualified growers and skilled labor, something’s got to give. Could artificial intelligence (AI) be the answer? iUNU thinks so. The Seattle company (pronounced you-knew) launched its LUNA system in August, and already has orders filling up the next two years.
But developing an AI solution is not about replacing growers; it’s about augmenting their jobs by allowing them to be in two places at once, work proactively instead of reactively to solve plant growth issues in real time, and redirect the way they use their time by reducing the number of hours dedicated toward scouting crops and walking through greenhouses to check environmental conditions. Instead, growers can check crop conditions over coffee, and flag problems, create task lists, and assign tasks to staff members before they walk into work in the morning.
“We want to be the grower’s best friend,” says Adam Greenberg, CEO of iUNU.
How it Works
LUNA begins to capture growing data from the moment the system is switched on in the greenhouse. The system uses 3D imagery and environmental sensors to monitor plant growing conditions in real time. Growers can view each individual plant, and each bay of plants, from anywhere through software accessible on handheld devices. They set the environmental and growing parameters, and are able to set up alarms if those conditions change. With access to recorded data, growers can also “go back in time,” to view and compare plant growth and conditions from previous days, weeks, months, and even years, side by side with current crop conditions.
“The ability to capture historical data with artificial intelligence will provide grower operations with a way to develop tribal knowledge in growing practices, to automate the production process in a way that is consistent and repeatable, no matter who comes or goes from the operation,” Greenberg says.
With these features, LUNA gives growers the data they need for proactive management based on precise knowledge, and ideally will help growers maximize product yields and quality, reduce operational costs and waste, and confidently predict ready dates.
“All of the solutions we have seen so far focus on improving the grower’s reaction time to problems,” Greenberg says. “We reject the premise that ‘reactive mode’ is the natural state for growers. With the right technology, thoughtfully applied to give them better computer driven visibility, greenhouse operators can be as precise, proactive, and predictable as modern manufacturing operations.”
Technology Evolved Over Time
The LUNA system has been developed through an intensive, on-site learning process at grower operations that has provided the iUNU team with extensive knowledge about the realities of the greenhouse environment — and what works and what doesn’t, says Chief Technology Officer Matt King.
This experience has ultimately birthed the newest iteration of the LUNA system: one traveling, mounted robotic camera per greenhouse that moves along a track and is able to change directions via transfer stations. The new camera allows for better imaging, zoom, and high-resolution 3D imagery and modeling of each plant to see plant growth aspects like bud development, nutritional issues, and pest or disease symptoms. With both broad range views and the ability to zoom in and view individual plants, LUNA detects minute changes in each plant’s development in real time, and immediately communicates the actions required to ensure healthy outcomes.
The system’s sensors are implemented at the plant level to record critical environmental conditions within the greenhouse canopy, providing more accurate readings than wall-mounted sensors, King says.
iUNU works with greenhouse engineers to fit the system in and customize it to a greenhouse’s existing infrastructure, being careful not to emit extra shadows or anything that could disrupt a crop, says Head of Customer Success Shane Lewis.
“It’s important to us to make the system fit in seamlessly, and not expect growers to change anything about their current layout,” Lewis says.
Seeking Partnerships, Not Just Profits
The data recorded through LUNA should complement and work with a grower’s existing ERP system, fitting in somewhere between environmental controls systems and ERP — iUNU isn’t out to replace ERP software or other systems, Greenberg says. It can also interface with other automation equipment, at the grower’s request. The system is customized for each operation, and while iUNU does provide suggested return on investment targets, the company will not charge the grower for the system until a return is realized.
iUNU is committed to becoming a partner to each growing operation, and because of the time and infrastructure it provides as part of each installation, like getting Wi-Fi in each greenhouse where LUNA lives, the company has a significant investment in each grower partner, as well. The system is just one element of the partnership iUNU hopes to offer to growers.
“We don’t want to sell a widget — we want to sell support as a system,” Lewis says. “It’s about having your back. We’re all about building relationships with growers.”