Cannabis is a lucrative commodity crop that is paving a golden road for agricultural technology. Not so long ago, Willie Nelson was holding benefit concerts to support the American farmer; today, hemp and cannabis production are funding major technological advances in grow automation that can be applied to multiple types of indoor crops.
Although marijuana grows like a weed, requiring only minimal care to survive, growing the highest quality, commercial cannabis for retail sales takes more involvement. Consistency is key in producing a quality crop with a high yield to maximize profits. Grow automation technology allows the highest available level of commercial grow room consistency.
Grow Automation Equals Consistency
When growing cannabis, it is important to nurture the plant appropriately for maximum cannabinoid and terpene expression as well as maximum yield. To complicate matters, individual strains require different "recipes" of light, nutrients, water, and other environmental conditions for optimal growth. In other words, what Sour Diesel needs to thrive is likely much different from Afghan Kush.
While master growers are highly skilled, the fact of the matter is, people make mistakes, and the less human intervention there is, the more consistent the conditions will be. Without grow automation:
- Growers may leave doors open which alters the temperature, humidity, and airflow for plants in the room.
- Staff can prune the wrong plants or move the wrong clones.
- Theft of plants and "early harvesting" can also be an issue.
Benefits of Grow Automation
Although human intervention will still be required in commercial cultivation facilities, grow automation technology is advancing rapidly to reduce the human effect and maintain a high-level of consistency throughout the entire process. Grow automation systems vary in complexity and may only control a portion of the process such as lighting schedules, while other systems will handle or monitor the crops from seed to harvest.
The overall goal of most automated grow systems is to reduce the amount of labor necessary for growing the best cannabis crop possible. The benefits of these systems include:
Maximizing Light Schedules – Cannabis plants require specific light during different periods of their life. Young and vegetative plants require longer light exposure than plants which are ready for the flowering stage. Automating the light schedule provides the plant consistency. Additionally, advanced LED lighting systems are allowing growers to manipulate the light spectrum the cannabis plant receives to boost production of specific cannabinoids and terpenes.
Applying Nutrients – Whether you're applying nutrients through an aquaponics system or through foliar spray, getting the right amount of nutrients for each crop can be difficult and leaves room for human error. People can forget to log when nutrients are applied, leading to over-application of nutrients which can damage the plant. Also, growers may not mix the appropriate amount of nutrients which can either burn the plants in a case of overfeeding or decrease bud production when the plants are underfed.
Monitoring Conditions – A grow manager or master grower may not be able to always be onsite to monitor employee tasks or the conditions of each room. High-tech automated systems monitor the conditions of the grow room including temperature, humidity, and airflow, and send the grower an alert when one of those measurements falls outside pre-determined boundaries.
Reducing Human Error – Grow automation helps eliminate as many variables as possible to maximize consistency. People make mistakes. Regardless of how reliable the person is, fatigue, emotional state, or other distractions can contribute to errors in the workplace.
Security & Control – Cannabis is a valuable crop, and whether it's for personal use or for profit, the temptation to steal can be too much for some. Losing clones or individual buds can happen if proper security measures are not put in place.
Urban-Gro: A Leader in Grow Automation
Urban-Gro, a leader in indoor growing systems, recently announced its Soleil technology, the Cadillac of agricultural grow automation. Soleil addresses nearly all concerns in a cannabis grow operation. Utilizing a network of tiny sensors, Soleil Sense provides growers key insights into their grow room operations. Soleil can track and monitor a wide variety of typical grow room factors including,
Electrical conductivity of each plant
Vapor Pressure Deficit in the canopy
Water flow and pressure
The sensors are placed around the room and even on the plants themselves to monitor and track, not only the conditions surrounding the plants, but the movement of the plants as well. Using accelerometer technology, the sensors can track the slightest movement in each plant and send alerts to appropriate personnel. Additionally, sensors, affixed to an employee badge, can be utilized to track employee movement while inside the grow rooms, deterring theft and identifying suspicious activity.
For example, a head grower assigns a team the task of moving the OG Kush clones to a vegetation room, but something gets lost in translation and the team accidentally starts to move Afghan Kush instead. With Soleil, the grower assigns a task in the system stating exactly which plants to move, and when the wrong plants trip the motion sensors, the system will immediately send an alert notifying the manager of the error.
Through 3D image mapping, Soleil "paints a picture" of the environmental conditions at any given moment inside the grow room. In real time, growers can view temperature, humidity, lighting and air quality and pinpoint any cold spots or areas that aren't falling within the optimal range for each particular strain. After programming certain parameters, the system will alert growers when conditions fall outside of that range.
During an interview at Denver's Seed to Sale show, Bob Pullar, Urban-Gro's Chief Financial Officer explained, "Soleil provides micro-climate control. Not only do we know what is happening… we can control all the environmental factors for each individual group of plants."
Beyond just monitoring the crops, Soleil Control allows control of environmental conditions within the grow room. This intelligent system can be designed to adjust lighting, temperature, humidity, and air quality as needed. Such advanced technology allows cultivators the ability to mimic natural outdoor growing conditions like sunrise, sunset, and natural breezes, as well as set parameters to keep conditions consistent at all times. This consistency leads to world-class cannabis.
Pursuit of Perfection
Clearly the ability to automate so many tasks and operations within a grow facility helps to create and maintain the ideal conditions for any crop. However, Urban-Gro hopes to take the processes to the next level by collecting and analyzing the data for a richer understanding of the illustrious crop. Learning the impact of minor adjustments in lighting spectrums, nutrients, and other environmental factors can help ensure the optimum potential for each cannabis strain.
As the cannabis industry continues to expand across the United States, research facilities and universities are allowed to devote the proper resources to understanding the cannabis plant. Grow automation technology will become standard practice for most high-end, large commercial operations. The rest of the agriculture industry will benefit from the Green Rush by taking advantage of the advanced technology developed in the cannabis industry.