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Internet of Things: Food grows locally with a tech assist

The Internet of Things, food quality and food safety take on another dimension at Freight Farms, a Boston company that provides a farm in a box — or, more specifically, a 40′ x 8’ x 9.5’ shipping container.

The company’s container farms provide climate control, lighting and a hydroponic system, enabling customer-farmers to grow leafy vegetables year round. The containers, according to Freight Farms, are optimized to grow herbs, different varieties of lettuce and other vegetables such as kale and cabbage. IoT wasn’t in the picture when Freight Farms launched in 2010, but the technology has become increasingly central to farm management.

“We didn’t start out there … but [IoT] became a very significant part of the business,” said Kyle Seaman, director of farm technology at Freight Farms. “It is essential and fundamental to our success.

Down on the farm with IoT

Seaman outlined Freight Farms’ IoT components (the company uses LogMeIn’s Xively IoT platform) and other technology pieces: Each container farm is equipped with climate sensors that monitor air temperature, CO2 level and humidity as well as water sensors that focus on pH, nutrient levels and temperature. The water temperature sensors keep tabs on separate water tanks for seedling growth and mature plant growth.

The sensors and the farm’s equipment load-out of lights, pumps and fans continually report to an automation controller, which manages the various farm systems. An edge device reads the climate and equipment data every minute from the automation controller. Each farm also includes a HD IP camera, which the edge device reads every few minutes. The edge device links to a publish/subscribe broker, a message router that facilitates communication among IoT components. The publish/subscribe broker publishes the data from the edge device as it reads it.

The edge device can use existing W-iFi networks or cellular for connectivity.

Next, new data is sent to Freight Farms’ Amazon Web Services server via the publish/subscribe broker for processing. On each save, the data is run through a set of filters to check the sensor values and equipment on/off state, Seaman said. If any monitoring flags are turned on for a particular farm component, a side process is triggered. Monitoring triggers include sending an on/off command to any of piece of equipment, or email notifications and push notifications to the farmer. Equipment and sensor data is then processed for storage in Freight Farms’ time series database for historical analysis.

Internet of Things: Food grown with remote assistance

Farmers use Freight Farms’ Farmhand app, which, when opened, is connected to the company’s broker, enabling remote control of the container farm. Users can view the farm’s camera feed as well as historical trend data gleaned from the sensors.

Caroline Katsiroubas, community manager at Freight Farms said the app “essentially takes all the readings from the sensors inside the farm and displays that data.”

Farmhand currently runs on iOS devices, but Freight Farms plans to launch an Android beta and, following that rollout, a Web version. Farmers using Farmhand have been able to cut the time they spend each week managing their farms from 30 hours to 20 hours, since the app eliminates the need for farmers to be physically in the farm if they are not tending their plants.

Thus far, Freight Farms has sold more than 60 container-farm units to North American customers, which are growing produce in such environments as highway underpasses and parking lots. The company’s customers include small businesses, hotels, restaurants and educational institutions.

The ability to provide locally grown vegetables contributes to food quality and safety, since leafy vegetables are highly perishable. Nutrition after harvest breaks down rapidly and bacteria may contaminate greens as they travel across the supply chain. A 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “more illnesses were associated with leafy vegetables … than any other commodity.”

“Leafy greens don’t travel well,” Seaman said.

But with an assist from the Internet of Things, food can stay closer to home.