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Fraunhofer CAP laser scientists illuminate the future of farming

11 Oct 2019

UK start-up Grobotic Systems using F-CAP knowhow to develop LED-driven plant growth chambers.

Work has begun on a pioneering project that will allow indoor farmers to pinpoint the best conditions for growing their crops.

Grobotic Systems, a startup founded in Sheffield, UK in 2018, has enlisted world-class laser experts at the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics in Glasgow to help develop its specialised plant growth chambers. These will enable farmers to find the best environmental conditions or “plant growth recipe” to cultivate high-quality crops, thus minimising wasted resources and increasing productivity.

It is well established that different wavelengths of light affect crop growth, flavour, nutritional value, and even medicinal properties, but precisely which colours affect these qualities is unknown, say the partners.

Grobotic System’s innovative chamber has a tuneable array of LEDs that will let farmers experiment with different colours to find the most effective “light recipe" for their crop of choice, be it lettuce with more anthocyanin for greater antioxidant properties or sweeter, juicier strawberries.

The Fraunhofer team will play a key role in creating a new state-of-the-art integrated imaging system to measure the growth rate and quality of crops throughout the process. The highly sensitive monitoring chamber will be tested by plant scientists at the University of Sheffield and Stockbridge Technology Centre, in North Yorkshire, both of which are partners in the research consortium.

The two-year project won funding from Innovate UK, the Government’s innovation agency, via the Transforming Food Production Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

Boosting productivity, while reducing environmental impact

Dr Alexis Moschopoulos, co-founder and Managing Director of Grobotic Systems, commented, “Vertical farming, where plants are grown indoors in a controlled environment under LED lights, is a radical technology that has the potential to meet the demands of a growing population and to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.

“However, as a new technology, and despite huge investment, vertical farming is not nearly as efficient or profitable as it needs to be in order to meet these demands. With our chamber identifying the best plant growth recipes, we believe we can help farmers grow healthier, tastier food that is better for the environment and for the consumer.”

Henry Bookey, Project Lead at the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics added, "We are delighted to be involved in developing tools to allow a much more efficient and effective way of farming. Fraunhofer’s network of global research centres harness science to benefit industry and this particular idea could have wide commercial application.”

Using an environmental control module, the plant growth chamber will also allow farmers to test crops under a range of temperatures, humidity levels, and fertilisation, which together with light colour have a profound effect on how they grow and taste.

At the end of an experiment, the sophisticated chamber’s online platform will feed back the recommended plant growth recipe for implementation on a farmer’s large-scale vertical farm. The result: lower production costs for the farmer and better quality food or medicine.

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