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Tackling Food Insecurity Through Urban Farming Technology

This article was originally published on engineering.com by Sana Kazilbash on January 29th, 2021. You can see the full article on engineering.com by visiting this link: https://www.engineering.com/story/tackling-food-insecurity-through-urban-farming-technology

It may be time to start growing our own produce. In a world where climate change and overpopulation are already a rising concern, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has made us increasingly conscious of food’s supply chain insecurities. COVID-19 has caused hiccups within production lines, and we have an uncomfortable dependence on frontline workers for our food needs. We lack localized distributed food systems, and our continued reliance on central agricultural zones has resulted in farmers having to recycle ripe crops due to the fragility of our supply networks.

Just Vertical, an indoor vertical hydroponic company based in Toronto, has witnessed a triple-digit increase in demand of its AEVA units during the pandemic.

“Our specific area of indoor agriculture is projected to grow to $6 billion in North America by 2022,” says Kevin Jakiela, co-founder, and president of Just Vertical, in an interview with engineering.com. “COVID has really pushed the envelope of people considering where their food comes from, and how quickly they can access their food. We’ve accomplished numerous commercial projects, such as setting up basement farms. Indoor farms are essentially a way for urban dwellers to grow different types of produce at the same time all year round.”

Jakiela has personal experience with communities affected by food insecurity, having worked extensively in remote Canadian Arctic regions such as Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and Northern Quebec.

“You can’t grow food in –40°C, with 20 to 22 hours of darkness a day,” asserts Jakiela. “I like to consider myself a banana-a-morning guy. When I got to these communities, bananas didn’t exist—and when they did arrive, they were mushy and brown. Food prices were insurmountably high. A frozen pizza would go for $35–40. A two-liter jug of orange juice would cost around $40. There were major nutrition issues in these communities, with rampant obesity, diabetes, and heart disease because subsidies would be applied to unhealthy foods. A bag of chips would cost the same there as it did in Toronto, which is sad when you have to feed a family and there’s only so much money to go around.”

In 2017, Jakiela leveraged his plant biology background and incorporated Just Vertical with co-founder Conner Tidd, who he had met at the University of Toronto when completing a master’s degree in sustainability management. Tidd had previously worked within the sustainability division of a multinational agriculture company and possessed a breadth of experience in tackling innovation challenges across the farming industry.

Kevin Conner Just Vertical Hydroponic Unit

With Just Vertical, the two innovators are aiming to transform city dwellers into urban farmers—growing fresh, pesticide-free produce while simultaneously decreasing the carbon footprint associated with the transportation of food around the globe.

The AEVA

Just Vertical AEVA Hydroponic Indoor Gardening Unit

Just Vertical’s high-yield indoor growing system, the AEVA, is a hybrid of both hydroponic and aeroponic systems. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil, while aeroponics refers to using an air or mist environment. The $1,199 unit—which measures at a height of 5’10” (1.77 m), and a width of three feet (0.915 m)—can house 16 plants at a time. It can grow over 200 varieties of plants —from leafy greens and herbs to tomatoes and strawberries. Up to 10 lbs of produce can be generated per month, translating to approximately 35 servings of food.

Apart from the luxury of being delivered fully assembled, the AEVA requires no green thumb either. After running warm water over the seeds to facilitate germination, each seed is placed inside a peat moss plug, and the pod is planted into the tower. Peat moss foregoes the need for soil, so indoor gardening can be enjoyed without the mess.

Hydroponic Mint In Indoor Gardening Unit

Organic salt-based nutrient solutions are provided to maintain a consistent level of minerals and ensure plant root health. Plant irrigation is automatic, and water is recycled through a filtration system—resulting in the usage of 95 percent less water than traditional agriculture. All you essentially have to do is add water to a 12-liter reservoir once every two weeks.

Just Vertical has a patent in pod irrigation technology that allows more oxygen to be received at the root level. By using both hydroponic and aeroponic techniques—in turn, circumventing each of their weaknesses—plant growth is optimized and issues like clogging are avoided.

“We can grow produce faster, and end up with healthier crops,” affirms Jakiela. “We actually tell people they’re going to want to check their roots. The roots advance so quickly—because there’s so much dissolved oxygen in the back of the piping—that they essentially propel and grow up to two weeks more rapidly than in traditional agriculture.”

Filling Reservoir Hydroponic Indoor Gardening Unit

The indoor plants require no additional sunlight, thanks to built-in LED lights that are specially designed for plant growth. While different plants typically require distinct wavelengths of light, the AEVA uses a full-spectrum white light to meet the needs of multiple varieties of produce at a time.

“We’ve made it a truly integrated system because no one wants to grow just one thing,” explains Jakiela. “That’s simply no fun anyway; we want to ensure the diversification is there. The full-spectrum white light consists of different LEDs over the 400–700 nm visible spectrum. We’ve done a lot of research on our back end about integrating different types of nutrients, lighting durations, and watering cycles, to be able to grow a variety of crops at the same time.

“If you do want to focus on your tomatoes, you need to choose them as your primary crops and let them flourish. The other crops you’re growing on the side may not grow as prominently but still will grow. For example, once tomatoes start to flower and fruit, they need more red light, nearing the infrared side of the spectrum. You can always add additional red light to help that ripening process, but it’s not essentially needed at home—because you’re not on a timeline to harvest a plant to sell it. On a commercial level, it matters, since it’s financing out of your pocket—but at home, it’s all self-consumed.”

A mobile app serves as a tool to assess which crops can optimally be grown together. “Based on our knowledge of plant science, we can provide users with an overall rating of whether their combination of selected plants will thrive collectively, or whether their growth will be poor,” says Jakiela

The app also monitors plant health and provides notifications for when to add liquid fertilizer, when to fill the water reservoir, and so on.

The AEVA can additionally be used as a storage cabinet, making it a multifunctional product with a modern design.

“Our lights are dimmable, in case you’re watching a movie with the family,” describes Jakiela. “They aren’t loud, intrusive lights. We want the AEVA to be a structure in your home that looks beautiful—a conversation piece that you don’t have to put away when company comes over.”

Kevin Conner Laughing Hydroponic Indoor Gardening Unit With Fresh Produce

When it comes to appearances, Just Vertical utilizes NexTech’s ARitize software to create 3D augmented reality (AR) models of its AEVA systems. Through a link on Just Vertical’s website that integrates to the phone app, users can project 3D products in their home to see how each unit fits before committing to a purchase.

“It’s been a very cool partnership with NexTech AR,” conveys Jakiela. “You can give people dimensions, but it’s not the same as physically seeing whether the unit overlaps with your bed or kitchen sink. This tool has been extremely helpful during COVID with our office being closed and people being unable to check out the real-life product.”

Although the AEVA comes with a two-year warranty, Jakiela estimates that the system can keep running for eight to 10 years.

“The lights should be good for 7.3 years,” says Jakiela. “The pump should last about five years. We’re a sustainability-driven company, so we design our parts to be replaceable. Our first prototype from 3.5 years ago is still running. Our new products are even more durable, so those should last much longer.”

The Design and Manufacturing Experience

Just Vertical is a former resident of the Autodesk Technology Center in Toronto, with its residency kicking off in 2018.

Working On Optimizing For Fresh Hydroponic Produce Autodesk

“It wasn’t so much of a generative design process to start,” details Jakiela. “We mainly used generative design to optimize the way the lights were projected on the plant sites. Key factors included the distance between the plant site and the legs, the distance between different contours of the cabinet to the irrigation system, and how it all came together.

“In terms of the design process on our end, we started from sheer prototyping iteration by drawing out 2D sketches through Adobe and designing 3D models of the product on Fusion 360. From there, we built a foam cut-out and a wooden replica of the prototype at our lab. Once we joined the Autodesk community, we began to use all of the equipment and machinery that Autodesk's workspace had to offer. We used CNC machining, 3D printing, and laser cutting equipment in the shop. From there, we developed a working prototype in-house—which we used to grow different vegetables and herbs for everyone’s lunch at the Autodesk Technology Center!”

Manufacturing Parts For Indoor Green Gardens

While innovating the AEVA, the team almost exclusively used the Markforged 3D printer (which Jakiela fondly refers to as the “Rolls Royce of 3D printers”).

“I’ve never used a better 3D printer in my life,” expresses Jakiela. “It’s excellent in terms of resolution and speed. It’s AI-integrated. With a lot of the software on 3D printers, there’s a considerable amount of guesswork around where things go, and the process is more tedious and prone to errors. Markforged uses AI to automatically place material on the printer bed, optimizing the overall print.”

The Just Vertical team also benefited from the industrial design expertise of the Autodesk community.

“I can’t say enough good things about Autodesk,” says Jakiela. “You get exposed to so many different types of companies, from health tech to IoT. We saw a lot of interesting collaborations come out of there. From my end, as a plant biologist who was untrained on the manufacturing side of things, it was a highly rewarding learning experience.”

Collaborating Buidling Hydroponic Units

Just Vertical recently launched its smaller EVE model in October 2020, which was named by one of the Autodesk Technology Center experts based on the movie WALL-E.

“The name was the hardest part,” laughs Jakiela. “Not the design, not putting it together, not the manufacturing. Matthew from Autodesk suggested that EVE would be a cute, smaller version in comparison to the AEVA. He’s actually now an owner of the EVE as well, so it’s come full circle.”

Just Vertical presently manufactures its hydroponic units at a facility in London, Ontario. Plastics, pods, and plumbing systems are injection molded, and items are assembled in-house.

“We make all AEVA and EVE units internally—from sanding, painting, and staining, to assembly and packaging,” confirms Jakiela.

Working On Irrigation For Hydroponic Units

The company’s transferable pod systems can even integrate into warehouses and greenhouses to grow food on a larger scale. Just Vertical aims to work with multiple community leaders, private companies, and charities catering to the specific needs of various communities.

“Our utility patent allows us to scale as low as 5.5 inches off the ground, and indefinitely larger in terms of height and width,” explains Jakiela. “The technology is truly universal on a vertical plane.”

The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

Just Vertical has won several awards around the world, including the Clean 50 Award for Sustainable Capitalism in Canada, the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and the Hong Kong Science Technology Parks Global 100. Before COVID-19 shutdowns, the hydroponic company even created an edible green wall at a pizzeria, where staff could pick microgreens like fresh mint and basil in front of customers.

“Once we get back out there and everything goes back to normal, people will want those experiences,” attests Jakiela.

The global shift towards sustainability is paving the way for avant-garde solutions like controlled-environment agriculture and vertical farming. Jakiela believes that the worldwide approach to growing food should be multifaceted.

“It can’t just be hydroponics,” he declares. “We’ve got to be multitiered in using different types of technology to make agriculture more efficient, while also maintaining focus on a community-specific approach. I feel positive because there are a lot of very cool innovations happening in the industry worldwide.”

To learn more about Just Vertical’s hydroponic systems, visit the website.

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