Plantscrapers and Robotic Bees: Is This the Future of Food?



You didn’t think you’d be eating cheese sandwiches and steak forever did you? Population pressures mean the menu of the future may look very different – and new technologies are helping food scientists get creative.

It’s impossible to predict the future. But sometimes it’s important to try. The global population is careening towards 8 billion. By 2050 that figure is expected to be almost 10 billion, with around 70 percent of that swollen population living in cities.

As the population grows, the current models of food production become increasingly unsustainable. Finding more efficient foods could be the difference between feast and famine.

No less than a radical transformation is required. Here to help is a range of new technologies that are empowering farmers, scientists and entrepreneurial foodies, to rustle up a vision of the future of food. Are you ready for an edible revolution?

Modified seeds show need for speed

As climates change, so too does a plant’s productivity from region to region. That means resilient crops are key to a well-fed future. By accelerating crop growth and reproduction cycles, scientists and breeders around the world can engineer plants that are more nutritious, disease resistant and better adapted to changes in climate. But how?

Speed breeding might just be the golden ticket that heralds the next agricultural revolution. A concept that originated at NASA, speed breeding artificially optimises things like light, nutrition and water supply to make plants grow faster. “Long day” crops like wheat, barley and chickpea (which flower in response to longer day cycles) are exposed to as much as 22 hours of continuous light per day via LED lamps. Under these conditions, scientists have been able to grow plants like wheat from seed-to-seed in just eight weeks.

That enables breeders to grow up to six generations every year. With each new generation, researchers attempt to breed in desirable traits while breeding out undesirable ones, creating seeds in the lab that thrive in the field – resilient enough to withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

Behold the plantscrapers!

It takes an awful lot of land to farm the crops that we consume (and feed the animals that we consume). The World Bank states that 37 percent of our planet’s land area is used for agriculture. That’s more than a third – a huge area – and the larger the population grows, the more space we need for farming.

But what if farms grew upwards instead of outwards? That’s the thinking behind Plantagon’s plantscrapers: towering buildings that combine vertical farming with residential or business space in a symbiotic system, using municipal infrastructure such as cooling, heating, biogas and water to assist with food production. Plantagon has even designed a production line that rotates crops from floor to ceiling as they grow, timed so that crops are ready to harvest by the time they reach the bottom of the building.

Bringing crop production into the urban area slashes the distance from “field” to fork, eliminating a number of financial and environmental challenges. Meanwhile, the idea of creating hybrid buildings that are part farm, part living/office space helps to overcome the economic and commercial viability challenges of using prime urban real estate exclusively for crop production. In essence, the capital generated from the residential/office rents helps to support the farming aspect of the building.

>> How cities are driving towards a smarter future

A farm inside a freight container

On a slightly smaller scale, what if you (or anyone else) could start a sustainable farm inside a shipping container? Thanks to Freight Farms, you can. The ingenious Leafy Green Machine is essentially a forty-foot shipping container that uses hydroponics and automated climate control to grow fresh produce 24.7.365 – from anywhere in the world. The potential yield is the equivalent of 1,000 heads of lettuce per week. That’s more than enough to bring a generous portion of self-sustainability to your business.

Oh and did we mention that Freight Farms is a SOLIDWORKS customer? Our software was an essential tool during the design and engineering process of the Leafy Green Machine, allowing the team to rapidly move from the concept phase, through rapid prototyping and design validation. All without building a single physical prototype. SOLIDWORKS also made it easy to create manufacturing documentation for production as well as imagery for marketing material. Find out more.

Grow shrimp in your own back garden

We humans eat a lot of seafood. So much in fact that it has to be farmed, with global aquaculture accounting for more than half of the seafood produced for human consumption. Unfortunately that comes with environmental complications.

Shrimp farming mostly takes places in tropical regions. The industry has led to the destruction of sensitive coastal habitats for shrimp farming. Approximately one-fifth of the world’s mangrove forests have been destroyed due to the expansion of shrimp and fish farming. These mangroves absorb carbon dioxide, provide a protective buffer from coastal storms and provide valuable habitats for wild fish.

But what if you could grow shrimp from anywhere – from the Gobi desert to your own garden? With Biofloc technology you may soon be able to. This revolutionary farming technique ditches the open ocean in favour of man-made pools where the artificially-controlled micro-climate is always set to shrimp-happy. As shrimp grow, microorganisms are introduced to the ecosystem to detoxify the water and remove shrimp waste. These microorganisms are consumed by zooplankton. The zooplankton in turn become shrimp food, allowing farmers to meet some of the shrimp’s dietary needs gratis.

Rural robots boost farm yields

Drones, autonomous robots and machine-learning: not the sort of thing you associate with your standard stroll through the countryside. That may be about to change. The Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University is embarking on a project to use drones and autonomous robots to help farmers grow food faster, smarter and more abundantly.

As part of the project the team has developed an autonomous ground robot capable of taking visual surveys of crop fields to predict the expected fruit yield later on in the season. It can then prune leaves and thin fruit to maintain the perfect balance between leaf area and fruit load. Best of all, autonomous robots never complain of a sore back.

What’s the buzz about robotic bees?

In recent years colony collapse disorder (CCD) has ravaged bee populations worldwide. That’s a big problem. Bees help to pollinate around one-third of the crops that are popularly consumed in the western world. Fewer bees mean fewer strawberries, sunflower seeds, sprouts – and an awful lot more.

Several strategies are taking shape to try and save the humble honey bee from an untimely demise. But Harvard University is working on an insurance policy just in case: RoboBees. These autonomous microbots have wings and use sensors (inspired by the antennae of real bees) that allow each RoboBee to sense and respond to their environment. RoboBees could be ready to begin pollinating crops within a decade.

The search for tomorrow’s food starts today

The world of robotic bees, cricket burgers and meat grown in Petri dishes may seem farfetched. You may not want to believe that shrimp could be grown in the Sahara. But there’s one thing that’s undeniable: as the population grows, so does our need for food sources that have sustainable environmental and economic footprints. Something has to change. Why not start searching for the answer now?

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. offers complete 3D software tools that let you create, simulate, publish, and manage your data. SolidWorks products are easy to learn and use, and work together to help you design products better, faster, and more cost-effectively. The SolidWorks focus on ease-of-use allows more engineers, designers and other technology professionals than ever before to take advantage of 3D in bringing their designs to life.