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​High-Tech Vegetable Factories: The Future of Urban Farming

Urban farms are developing unique methods of producing more food at a faster pace, and in smaller areas.

This article is part of an Urban Infrastructure series exploring ways to better the cities of the future, brought to you by Intel's Innovators Wanted–looking for the next great idea to improve the quality of life in urban areas around the world. Sign up to find out more.

The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the world's population will reach 9.6 billion people. Keeping up with the demand for fresh, healthy food for a population growing at that speed is an enormous challenge. In an effort to get produce to those who need it, urban farms are developing unique methods of producing more food at a faster pace, and in smaller spaces.

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Previously, these methods have not contributed a significant amount of the world's food, partly because their power and production costs are higher than traditional farms. With the development of energy-efficient growing systems like vertical crop factories and enclosed container farms, tech-focused entrepreneurs are starting to change that.

As these technologies become proven and profitable, urban farming can make an impact in a lot more locations. In cities all over the world, vegetable-loving startups have engineered ways to grow food indoors, year-round, directly at the point of consumption.

In New York City, Gotham Greens operates urban farms in three state-of-the-art rooftop greenhouses. All of their produce is grown using an irrigation system that collects rainwater from a cistern and re-circulates it through the facility. Instead of using chemicals to protect their crops from insects, they introduce ladybugs and wasps into the environment to prey on the more harmful pests.

Instead of growing in soil, they use a computer-operated hydroponic system which continually reads environmental sensors located around the farm and automatically deploys lighting, fans, shade, heat blankets, and irrigation pumps.

Such computerized methods typically require a lot of power, but they are able to offset their electric and heating demands with 60 kilowatts of on-site solar panels, as well as an energy-efficient building design. The greenhouse uses efficient LED lighting, light-diffusing window glazing, passive ventilation, and thermal curtains.

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The system uses ten times less water than soil-based farming and yields about 20 times more volume. It can also grow year-round, even in the dead of winter, delivering a variety of veggies to markets at times when traditionally grown produce is not "in season."

In Japan, the world's largest indoor farm is currently running in an abandoned semiconductor factory. Scientist Shigeharu Shimamura started building it in 2011 after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the country, sparking the Fukushima nuclear disaster and irradiating most of the area's crops.

In response to the food shortages, his company converted an abandoned industrial building into a 25,000 square-foot automated vegetable factory. It produces over 20 times the yield per square foot of traditional farms and uses 92 percent less water.

The farm is put together in vertical stacks of growing trays. In one 50' x 75' area, they can fit 120 racks, each with 24 growing trays. Through this method, a very small indoor area can produce as much food as a 16 acre farm. Powered by specialized LED lamps that generate modulated wavelengths of light to adapt to plant growth, they have reduced power consumption by 40 percent and increased harvest yields by 50 percent.

Verticrop, their proprietary automated system, is a closed loop of suspended trays on a conveyor belt. It moves around the room in a controlled environment in which computers optimize for room temperature, lighting, crop nutrients, fertilizer, irrigation and recirculation of water. It can maintain optimal growing conditions while measuring and rationing precise amounts of nutrients for every single plant. Because the whole process is enclosed and requires no pesticides, the resulting food is safer and higher in quality.

When crops reach the peak of freshness, the computer knows they are ready to be harvested and the conveyor system brings them over to the farm workers. They can be delivered to local restaurants and markets on the same day they were picked.

With innovations in farming technology, fresh produce may be right around the corner from your high-rise apartment.