AAFC and Microsoft Research scientists won this global competition
By Paula Schuck
What if you could maximize production in a greenhouse environment while optimizing growing conditions and pinpointing exact amounts of water, light and fertilizer needed by the crop? Minimizing human involvement while conserving resources could transform the greenhouse of the future.
This question guided a recent international research competition led by Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands and Tencent, a corporate sponsor. Through the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge, they called for the world’s top researchers and experts to develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems to remotely monitor and control the production of greenhouse cucumbers.
Each of the teams could enter the greenhouse for one day. They set up sensors and installed web cameras. Then, they could not to enter the greenhouse for four months until the contest was over. Participants controlled everything remotely from Redmond, Washington, more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) from the Dutch greenhouse.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Microsoft Research as well as five teams representing nine countries participated in the competition.
Microsoft had heard about scientists’ work at the Harrow Research and Development Centre (HRDC) on greenhouse cucumbers and approached them to take part in the project.
“Microsoft Research had the AI expertise, but expertise in greenhouse crop science and lighting is also needed for successful crop production. That’s where we came in,” said Dr. Xiuming Hao, a research scientist in crop physiology and energy conservation at HRDC.
“The less resources used the better. We are going to have fewer resources in the future, so being able to use AI to help make better decisions with those resources will reduce fees and workload,” said Hao in a phone interview.
He was on the winning team – named Team Sonoma – that accomplished this feat.
A team in the Netherlands also set up a greenhouse and manually tended their cucumbers.
Team Sonoma exceeded the output of the Dutch team by 17 per cent and was the only team to beat the manual team on output. Team Sonoma, led by Microsoft’s Dr. Kenneth Tran and advised by Hao, grew more than 55 kilograms of cucumbers per square metre with a net profit that was 25 per cent greater than the second-place team. Team Sonoma used the fewest inputs (including fertilizers, water, energy and pesticides) and had the best score on total sustainability.
Although the competition is over, Hao and Microsoft Research will continue their work.
“This system will be able to improve over time. We will continue working with Microsoft and gathering data to make improvements,” said Hao. The research will eventually be transferable to tomatoes and sweet peppers.
The greenhouse of the future is only a few short years away from being widely used, Hao estimated.
Jingming Zheng and Quade Digweed, both of the HRDC, provided technical support on the project. Shalin Khosla, the greenhouse vegetable specialist at Harrow, offered crop production support.
Diane Labombarbe/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo