AeroFarms uses drones, private wireless and AI to boost crop quality

AeroFarms uses drones to capture images of its vertically stacked crops. (AeroFarms)

Nokia Bell Labs and AeroFarms have developed a proof of concept that uses Nokia's private 5G network technology to enable drone-mounted cameras to transmit detailed crop images. The software employs artificial intelligence to identify and track plant interactions and variations.

AeroFarms is an agtech company that says it can grow crops without pesticides, using 95% less water than traditional farming techniques. The plants are stacked vertically and hydrated by aeroponics, a plant-cultivation technique in which the roots hang suspended in the air while nutrient solution is delivered by mist. The New-Jersey based company has already grown over 550 different varieties of plants and recently announced a plan to go public through a merger with a Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation (SPAC).

Nokia Bell Labs and AeroFarms are combining their machine vision technology for the PoC. Nokia said the system can identify plant variations “beyond what even the human eye can perceive” and is “built to take advantage of Nokia’s industry-leading 5G private wireless network."

Nokia said the proof of concept uses its private wireless networks, autonomous drone control and orchestration systems, image and sensor data pipelines, and AI-enabled mobile sensor technologies. These are combined with AeroFarms' machine vision software, environmental controls and data platform.

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AeroFarms CTO Roger Buelow described the collaboration as a "cross-disciplinary understanding at an industrial scale," saying it will "accelerate our ability to introduce new crops." The technology is set to be deployed across all AeroFarms sites, including at two new locations planned for Danville, Virginia and Abu Dhabi, UAE.

"When I watch the drones autonomously imaging our plants, I am blown away by how this truly represents the power of harnessing leading-edge technologies and bringing brilliant problem solvers together from diverse groups to grow the best plants possible," said AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg in a press release. "With Nokia Bell Labs, we have developed the next-generation system that can image every plant every day in a cost-effective way at scale."

“Vertical farming is just the beginning," said Nokia’s Thierry Klein, VP of the company's integrated solutions and experiences research lab. “With the AeroFarms platform, we are exploring the power of network driven intelligence for industrial outcomes."

Drone control and drone data transmission are expected to be important use cases for private 5G networks. Qualcomm recently announced a purpose-built chipset for drones, citing agriculture as one of the industries most interested in drone technology.