Indoor AgTech caught up with Darryn Keiller, CEO at Autogrow to learn about his vision and developments on A.I. and Machine Learning in the vertical farming industry
What’s your vision for Autogrow?
Our vision is to create the ultimate digital farmer. The digital farmer uses software, A.I., machine vision, and data driven technologies that improve yield, quality and predictability of supply. More importantly – everything is at their fingertips.
Solutions should also be affordable, accessible, scalable and relatively easy-to-use and that innovation should be achieved within 12 months (not 12 years).
Our rallying cry is for everyone in our industry to “Think Food Forward” and really start to understand how technology can be a positive force on the supply chain. Producers and growers face a future that is full of uncertainty, with many factors that they can’t control.
Autogrow’s goal is to make the unpredictable, predictable. And the complex, seem simple.
Reflecting on the industry in the past few decades and more recently, what do you think growers should expect in the next decade?
The AgTech space is moving at an incredibly fast pace right now and it would be difficult to predict what the next 10 years will look like given the current changes underway. Some innovation companies; both growers and technologists, have already closed their doors whereas others have started up. There’s a lot of discussion in the market about vertical farming and A.I. and other technologies, and all of that can be a mass of noise for growers and will continue to be as innovation is rolled out.
If you imagine it was only a short period of time where we went from landlines to mobiles to smart phones. We adopted and adapted to the new technology quickly and this will be no different. My advice to growers is to seek out those innovation companies; partner with them, be trialists for new tech and really get involved at the start. You’ll then get a front row seat to new things that will support your business.
Innovators also need to align to ensure we aren’t putting extra pressure on growers by making them grapple with AgTech that doesn’t integrate. That means open architecture and APIs that are industry standard which is why we have built our solutions that way.
A big enabler is the necessity for growers to have multi-modal internet to the farm and commercial grade onsite network infrastructure. A variety of options exists ranging from fiber optic to cellular and satellite. Rather than crop production subsides, this could be infrastructure grants or subsidies in collaboration with government or local legislators and the growers.
Much is being made of edge computing i.e. A.I. compute capability on the farm. It has its use cases, however high throughput data processing such as images from machine vision will be best served in the cloud. Which means being online. It’s about collaboration and an evolution of our industry where we will see powerful, efficient technology change the face of global agriculture for generations to come.
A main topic of conversation has been the challenges of labor, water and climate on crop production. How is Autogrow addressing these challenges?
These are three macro factors which have really grown to plague growers in the past 3 – 5 years. And the forward view is dramatically bad. To counter, we have seen some positive business practices implemented by some of our growers, that have paid off in the near term. For example, the shift from outdoor cropping to protected, using hoop / tunnel houses, combined with soil-less media and implementing our automation solutions. That move has seen some triple their yield and improve their product quality by creating a micro-climate that is easier to control, protects from adverse weather and extends their growing season. They have also reduced their water usage by over 50% which is a huge factor. Add in the data they are now collecting in order to adhere to local regulations and to make business decisions; it’s a winning formula.
Automation also addresses labor issues where some manual tasks are no longer required to be done by workers; creating labor savings and freeing them up to do other things. On the other end we see, and have experienced ourselves, the difficulty of recruiting skilled engineers, technologists and agronomists. We have five jobs in market now and we are all competing for the same talent as the industry continues its growth. That’s only going to get more difficult unless people are encouraged to enter the agricultural industry as a career path.
Regarding climate – it’s our hope that further technology adoption will positively impact the environment, whether that’s water savings, through recirculation, depletion of nutrients before running to waste, more energy efficient systems or precision growing methods that reduce waste.
I think labor, water and climate will always be huge influencers on the direction of the industry, but science and technology will give us a way through what will be very challenging times ahead for producers.
What’s on the horizon for Autogrow?
As I mentioned earlier, things are moving fast, and we are certainly no exception to that. Currently we are trialing a new industry solution with growers that will be announced in June at the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit in New York. The trial stages are always exciting as we work with some great growers who give constructive feedback that help us improve and refine what we are doing. We are also in a growth stage so our team will increase, both in NZ and in the U.S. There is even more innovation and exciting things on our horizon which we look forward to sharing with everyone in the coming months.
Darryn will be delivering a standalone session at Indoor AgTech on ‘A.I. and Machine Learning: Can Artificial Intelligence Prove Its Value in Horticulture and Indoor Production?’ and he’ll also be joining the discussion on ‘From Pilot to Mainstream: Automation and Systems Design to Transform Horticulture’ on June 20.