13TSB_ACT: SaturnSense Hydrofeed: In-line sensing of the full composition of nutrients for precision management of hydroponic farming

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Electrical and Electronic Engineering

Abstract

The project will deliver the prototype of a new in-line sensing technology for smart real-time management of the nutrient composition within intensive hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic farming. The emergence of new growing protocols and batch production techniques, from the process sector, have positioned this approach at the forefront of UK horticultural and exotic fruits production, both reducing the UK's requirement to import such produce and offering category managers a flexible production facility to meet changing consumer preferences. This business proposition exploits emerging materials and sensor engineering to deliver an appropriately costed in-line unit capable, for the first time, of monitoring & closed-loop control of the individual major nutrients, notably N, P, K, S & Ca. By integrating this with light management, within a supervisory data-acquisition & control system (SCADA), 100% QA of produce may be achieved with optimised inputs and minimised energy.

Technical Summary

The project will deliver the prototype of a new in-line sensing technology for smart real-time management of the nutrient composition within intensive hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic farming. The emergence of new growing protocols and batch production techniques, from the process sector, have positioned this approach at the forefront of UK horticultural and exotic fruits production, both reducing the UK's requirement to import such produce and offering category managers a flexible production facility to meet changing consumer preferences. This business proposition exploits emerging materials and sensor engineering to deliver an appropriately costed in-line unit capable, for the first time, of monitoring & closed-loop control of the individual major nutrients, notably N, P, K, S & Ca. By integrating this with light management, within a supervisory data-acquisition & control system (SCADA), 100% QA of produce may be achieved with optimised inputs and minimised energy.

Planned Impact

Though this is an early stage project the exploitation plan has been structured, assuming success, so that the subsequent phases of the project are mapped out. This strategy is comprised of four elements, with a degree of concurrency:

{a} IP SECURING: The technology developed in this project will have an equipment, consumables and know-how output: [1] Equipment - Nutrient sensory system, feedback and control system. The method of delivery being based on (a) MIP sensor array, for specific nutrients, in sealed unit with in-out irrigation channel connected to nutrient solution monitoring location via peristaltic pump and (b) a wireless feedback link to monitoring screen / logging system, in turn linked to dosing control system, including peristaltic dosing pumps, with manual or automated / preconfigured control options (see Know How below); [2] Consumables - low-cost user replaceable MIP cartridge with in-built solvents / reagents reservoir. Can be sent via post and 'exhausted' units returned for resetting / environmental disposal and; [3] Know-how - precise nutrient recipes, fertigation and irrigation strategies for specific crops and varieties for automated nutrient control. Method of delivery likely to be as software control package delivered on one-off purchase or subscription basis (possibly via internet) providing ongoing revenue and commercial drive for continued research (comprehensive know-how for automated nutrient control of specific varieties could also be integrated into the sensor itself as firmware).

{b} EXEMPLIFICATION & DISSEMINATION: During the project period SB will trial the prototype developed with UoM and demonstrate it to potential roll-out partners. The next stage, following this feasibility project, will be for the potential partners to test it and to organise large scale trials with commercial hydroponic growers (see below). The intention is that these partners will become involved in the commercial roll-out of the technology including or prior to the trace element sensory component.

{c} FUTURE TECHNOLOGY SUPPLY CHAIN DEVELOPMENT: The potential partners who will be 'in-the-loop', i.e. consulted under non-disclosure terms, at this early stage include: Synchemicals Group (including Hortifeeds, Vitax and NuTrel); Nunhems Seeds (the seed division of Bayer Crop Science); Hazeldene (leading freshly prepared salad supplier) and; Arid Agritech. It is inappropriate, given the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) and nascent IP position to include them as full partners at this stage. The limited competition that does exist within the market comes from ISE sensors, therefore CleanGrow are also a likely future partner.

{d} ROLE OUT PLAN & SYSTEM-BUILD COSTS: To meet these goals it is essential to deliver a specific and continuous nutrient monitoring system with an acceptable response time (<30 mins) for closed loop control of the hydroponic system. The proposed MIP unit has an anticipated Bill-of-Materials (BOM) and modular Systems Architecture (see Appendix C) such that the sensor chassis may be fabricated for <£500 per unit, at low numbers (10s-100s), with each specific measurands adding an additional <£100 capital cost and <£10 per annum operating costs (i.e. replacement wetted sensor elements & solvents). With value-engineering and volume sales (>10,000 units) these figures have been estimated to drop by 20-30%. Given an initial trade sale price of £1,500-2,500 for the unit, ROI of 3-5 times should be readily achievable on unit sales alone, with additional returns based on the sale of agronomy & maintenance services and consumables for system upkeep and application development.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The project is demonstrating the ability to detect phosphate nutrients in real-time through a combination of semi-selective molecularly imprinted polymer sensors and array-processing of the data. This has then led on to the opportunity to create a very low-cost multimodal sensor for phosphates, alongside other macro nutrients (potassium, nitrates, nitrites, Sulphites, etc.) by linking the electrochemical MIP approach with optical sensors based on printed organic sources and detectors. this work is now in the process of being published within the 'Sensors' journal.

The outputs of the project are now being translated into a new system build with industrial partners, through an Innovate-UK Transforming Food Production bid.
Exploitation Route Through the uptake by a 3rd party manufacturing partner capable of deploying the technology within commercial hydroponics and beyond.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

 
Description The research has resulted in the submission and peer review of a Letter publication. A new partnership with the original industrial partner and other, notably City Farms Ltd and STC Ltd is in the process of being submitted under the BBSRC Precision Agriculture programme Related research has now been incorporated within an industrial collaboration with Liberty Produce under the 'Transforming Food Production' programme of Innovate-UK; 'Co-ordinated technology development to provide an optimised and integrated system of leading vertical farming technologies', Project number: 25959.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Economic

 
Description Input to UKRI Agri-Food Strategy Panel on future research policy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact The finding of the integrated biology, electronics engineering and machine learning technologies exemplified within the projects identified, and their impacts on the Agri-Food sector, have been provided as evidence for the future UK-RI strategy, for UK Global Food Security and supporting international development in the GCRF programme.