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Sector Report: Food and beverage – Farming on the up and up


Vertical Future is a high-growth technology company, headquartered in London, that specialises in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) – a sub-sector of vertical farming.

The company’s holistic approach to engineering, technology, plant science, and automation create a set of technology value propositions in a sector that is experiencing tremendous growth, currently worth as much as $80 billion globally.

Vertical Future has also been running vertical farms since 2016, having built and scaled a vertical farming consumer-brand, Minicrops, focused on London B2B and B2C clients. Additionally, the company has a growing pipeline of internationally focused research across multiple themes, including a 75 per cent success rate with Innovate UK, the UK’s main funding body. This includes a research partnership to develop a root extract for an innovative respiratory product, a project focused on the sterilisation of seeds using plasma and working with a collective of Australian universities on how to apply vertical farming in zero gravity environments.

Vertical Future’s key differentiator from a technology standpoint is encompassed in its holistic, end-to-end approach to engineering and technology. The system has been designed to encompass every aspect of crop growing, from seed treatment, management, and planting through to germination, growing and harvest of the final product.

It comprises full automation, from seed handling through to harvest of product for packaging. This level of automation is not seen in any other single system in the sector and provides operational savings as well as reduced contamination points, improving food safety standards across the installation.

Following seeding, trays of product are automatically transferred to a germination tower where they are kept in prescribed conditions (including humidity, lighting, temperature) until they are automatically transferred to the growing system.

The growing system is dynamic and flexible, allowing for changes to be made to the growing environment during and between cropping cycles. This allows rapid responses to changing market dynamics, whether this is a forecast seasonal trend or an unexpected market shift. This flexibility is achieved through the following innovations:

Crops move along a bespoke, patented canal-like structure during their exposure to light (post-germination). Upon reaching the opposite end of the canal, they are ready for harvest. The canals utilise a flowing liquid conduction medium to move crop trays. This is low energy input, acts as a heat sink to reduce hotspots and works to remove debris and sources of contamination. Within these canals, nutrient delivery can be either aeroponic or hydroponic, dependent on the needs of the specific crop varieties being grown. Each canal has independent, fully adjustable, low-energy LED lighting that covers wavelengths from UV through the visible spectrum and into infrared. Each spectral group is controlled independently allowing fine scale control over the composition of amount/intensity of light.

In addition to the crops moving along the canal, the canals within a suspended stack move up and down relative to one another on opposite cycles. This allows ease of height adjustment to accommodate different crops, also increasing the number of canals in any given height by using the light/dark cycles to increase. This continual process also means a much flatter energy distribution throughout the day compared to other vertical farms with fewer peaks. The calculations, combined with the approach to LED lighting, show a 60 per cent reduction in power usage. Each stack can move side to side, much like a set of shelves in a library, eliminating most access points.

Coupling these two canal movements increases the growing area by 172 per cent per m3 compared to the same volume of a fixed shelf system that is typical of the first generation of vertical farm technology. Programmed software integrated robotic pickers work on the opposite sides of the growing canals, working in sync to facilitate a ‘first-in-first-out’ process of automation.

Throughout the crop cycle, sensors collect environmental and plant data. This data feeds into Vertical Future’s SaaS platform (DIANA) that automates changes in control systems to ensure a consistent environment and crop specification is adhered to. This SaaS platform allows the operator to track the progress of every plant growing throughout the system, ensuring that harvests can be forecast and monitored, stocks of raw materials such as substrates, seeds and nutrients can be replenished, and yield data monitored.

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