A project in collaboration
with Agile Robots

"Future automation as a driver for food production in densely populated areas by 2050."

According to projections by the European Commission, by the year 2050 food production in the EU will need to double in order to adequately feed a population of 450 million people. This challenge is accompanied by climate change, which brings prolonged droughts and excessive rainfall, requiring the adoption of carbon-efficient farming methods that reduce transportation demands or and , ideally, promote regional farming closer to consumers.

In this collaborative project with the tech startup Agile Robots from Munich, Germany together with my teammate Valerie Feiertag I investigated innovative approaches to future agriculture. The result is the creation of an advanced greenhouse that leverages intelligent prediction models to anticipate market and consumer trends. Our system aims to both reduce food waste and significantly improve the efficiency and quality of crop production. Termed “naturalistic farming,” this method integrates inspiration from natural ecosystems with the augmentation of Artificial Intelligence and sophisticated robotic systems to address challenging future food production demands effectively.

Applying the 3-Horizons method

Step 1: Horizon 1: The Present System

In the first horizon, we focused on understanding the current state of urban agriculture. This included analyzing existing farming practices, technologies, and the limitations they face, particularly in urban settings where space is at a premium and environmental conditions are challenging. Our objective was to identify areas where incremental improvements could be made, such as enhancing crop yield within small spaces with precision farming techniques, or integrating simple automation solutions to reduce labor. This horizon helped us ground our project in the present, ensuring our innovations could build upon and improve current farming techniques.

Step 2: Horizon 3: The Future System

In a next step, we defined Horizon 3 to establish a clear, ambitious vision for the future of urban agriculture. This horizon represents the ideal outcome – a fully autonomous, AI and robotics-driven polyculture farming system designed for urban settings. This concept was at the heart of our innovation, embodying a system capable of dynamically adapting to the specific needs of various plant species, thereby optimizing growth conditions and maximizing harvest-yield in limited spaces. This future-oriented vision was crucial as it set the the basis for achievable goals for the coming decade, informing the decisions and innovations Agile Robots would need to explore in Horizon 2.

Step 3: Horizon 2: Transformative innovations

A pivotal aspect of our project was proposing a significant shift from traditional agricultural practices towards more resilient systems. Our chosen concept direction (B) envisions a farming environment where diverse plant species could thrive in symbiosis, promoting biodiversity and ecosystem health. We aimed to move beyond conventional, human-centric farming models, advocating ecosystems that foster natural plant interactions.

Our project’s cornerstone innovation is the integration of advanced robotics and AI into these polyculture systems. Our concept, “Biosculptor,” was designed to facilitate dynamic responses to the unique needs of each plant species, optimizing environmental conditions to boost yield. The concept extends to managing complex processes, i.e., planting, nurturing, and harvesting, all under the automated surveillance of AI systems.

We utilized generative AI programs to create a series of examples for our biosculptor concept. The graphics below illustrate the capacity to physically print a dynamic growing environment, marking a significant shift from traditional soil-based farming methods. The AI-controlled system operates to adjust its structure and other growing parameters, ensuring optimal conditions for a wide range of crops. This intelligence not only boosts productivity but also promotes the cross-enrichment of plant species. The precise conditions managed by the AI system facilitate the growth of a diverse selection of plant species, thereby broadening dietary options and strengthening food systems against the effects of climate change and other environmental challenges.

As depicted above, our vision extends to integrating a futuristic food market within the architecture, where consumers will directly obtain freshly grown produce.

BioSculptor is designed to work in an enclosed system with precisely controlled climate conditions tailored to each crop’s needs. It integrates permanent water and fertilizer distribution systems within a flexible architecture. Additionally, robotic 3D printers enhance the system’s adaptability by creating on-demand growing structures like beams, towers, nets, or grids for plant support.

“The Caterpillar” focuses on plant health, diligently checking each crop’s condition and performing essential tasks like harvesting. It also has the unique ability to 3D print small support structures on the spot, aiding in the rapid adaptation and support of growing plants. It has the unique abiltiy stand upright for tasks like health monitoring and harvesting, or crawl and hang from structures to access plants from different angles.

This adaptability allows it to perform thorough health checks, harvest efficiently, and 3D print support structures directly at the plants’ base or even along vertical surfaces, embodying the versatility and adaptability of its natural namesake.

“The Beetle”, inspired by nature’s industrious builders, plays a fundamental role in our greenhouse by constructing and decomposing robust 3D printed structures for plant growing beds. It is essential in crafting and recycling the greenhouse’s physical environment, guaranteeing that the infrastructure adapts according to the plants’ requirements. Executing tasks directed by a complex AI system that predicts plant growth, ‘The Beetle’ prepares grow beds in anticipation of new plants, ensuring a seamless transition and continuous cultivation cycle.

Next, ‘The Ant’ embodies the collective intelligence and efficiency of ant colonies. Its main purpose is to ensure reliable operations within the ecosystem, transport harvests, fertilizer, and structure printing materials, as well as navigate the intricate structures that are partially beyond human reach. This robot’s design allows for a harmonious workflow, mirroring the efficiency and teamwork found in nature, and ensuring that every corner of the greenhouse is accessible and fully utilized, without the need for human intervention in confined areas.

This graphic depicts an overview of critical processes within an automated greenhouse, highlighting where human and robotic interactions with external resources.