Aeroponics and Automation with AEssenseGrows
Indoor cultivation is controversial. Opponents point to gargantuan energy use and inflated costs. Proponents demonstrate superior quality and yields. The future remains uncertain. What we know is that indoor cultivation has sparked technological revolution across industries.
Automation and sensor technology is the name of today’s game. Hydroponics have replaced many soil operations, and aeroponics are in line for the throne. AEssenseGrows is on the cutting-edge of indoor technology with fully automated, aeroponic grow systems. In 2016, the AEssenseGrows team constructed a 10,000 square foot indoor facility in Shanghai, China. Their mission is food safety in the face of overpopulation. But the system they developed is exceptionally suited for cannabis. In the words of Vice President of Marketing Phil Gibson, the technology creates a “nirvana for cultivation.”
Conventional cultivation uses soil, which stores nutrients and provides a buffer for roots. Roots wiggle through soil to find what they need. Hydroponic plants grow in non-soil mediums such as coco-coir, which cannot hold nutrients, so plants are flooded with nutrient-rich water (thus the ‘hydro’). In certain hydroponic systems, roots are permanently submerged in oxygenated water. The advantage of hydroponics is that plants don’t have to waste energy searching for nutrients in soil.
Aeroponics fall under the umbrella of hydroponics. But unlike hydroponics, aeroponic systems use air as the grow medium. Roots suspend in air with direct oxygen contact. Roots feed on oxygen just as the canopy feeds on carbon dioxide. Cultivators control the atmospheric conditions surrounding the roots and mist them with precise ‘recipes’ of nutrients infused into vapor.
Irrigating roots in the presence of surplus oxygen allows enhanced absorption and accelerates growth. AEssenseGrows reports 40% faster plant growth with 40% higher yields. In the cannabis space, Gibson reported, growers achieve 1 to 1.3 pounds per square foot with a production cost of $125 to $175 per pound. This means cultivators can break even against start-up costs after 2 to 3 harvests – as little as 16 weeks. “It’s got everything to do with that perfect recipe, perfect absorption by the plants, and the fast cycle of carbohydrate and nutrient creation,” Gibson said.
Faster growth and higher yields are not the only benefits of aeroponic cultivation. Gibson and the AEssenseGrows team analyzed tomato and lettuce crops from their Shanghai facility and discovered superior chemical profiles compared to field crops. “The crops are all beautiful, they have zero pesticides, they have amazing nutrition,” he said. “We’re seeing an order of magnitude better terpene profile in the same line of grows side by side when people are growing in coco versus aeroponics.”
So, what’s the catch? Aeroponic cultivation requires extreme babysitting and unforgiving precision. “People have horror stories of ‘well I was growing, everything was great, then everything died,’” joked Gibson. AEssenseGrows developed the AEtrium System for commercial cultivators to turn this conundrum on its head. The AEtrium wraps advanced software (Guardian Grow Manager), plant sensors and trackers, and dynamic dosing technology into an innovative and comprehensive smart farm. We’re talking nutrients, water, light, pH, humidity, temperature, and CO2, all tracked, recorded, and managed in real time. System cleaning happens every third day with hydrogen peroxide so it is spic-and-span at harvest. Finally for precise water and nutrient calculations, the system auto-flushes every two weeks. “You’ve got an easier problem to manage with a precise sensor-driven automated mechanical process,” Gibson continued. “You put it in cruise control and just watch.”
Of course, there are still challenges. Gibson and the AEssenseGrows team are working on new failsafes for cultivators who switch to manual operation modes and forget to switch back to automated modes. “They put it on manual for drain or fill, and leave… big surprise 24-48 hours later, whatever they left on manual isn’t operating so you get overflow or maybe a flood.”
Determining the spray recipe for roots is also paramount. The AEtrium System includes a standard nutrient recipe for commercially-viable Blue Dream. Cultivators can tweak the formula as needed. “We have some very enthusiastic people that change 5 or 12 variables at once,” admitted Gibson. “But we would really like them to do that in an iterative fashion – do a scientific approach where you change one variable.” Fortunately, cultivators can seek coaching from the AEssenseGrows team by granting firewall access.
In truth, the customizability of recipe sprays is a Pandora’s box of potential. Cannabis cultivators can dial-in nutrient variables to orchestrate cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Gibson shared a poignant analogy from the VP of sales, Chris Wrenn: “Today we have a player piano. We can play Chopsticks really well. But we have all the capabilities in that system to create the great symphonies of Beethoven and Chopin.”
Mechanical malfunction is a non-issue. “We use low-pressure aeroponics. That allows you to have a larger emitter size and less pressure on your piping and water pump. It’s a low maintenance irrigation system,” Gibson explained. “We don’t have clogging of nozzles. It just doesn’t happen.”
The sustainability of indoor facilities remains under fire. Precision dosing and water recycling mean the AEtrium uses 5% of the water and 30% of the nutrients required for soil-based growing. It also saves huge amounts of labor and produces zero waste. But there’s no getting around artificial lights. They remain the #1 cost and resource factor for indoor operations. AEssenseGrows vends LED lighting systems capable of 1,000 PPFD (photosynthetic photon flux density) at four times the efficiency of HPS (high pressure sodium) lights. In fact, they are phasing out sales of their HPS product. Gibson estimated that cultivators who invest in LEDs can break even in 12-16 months with significant operational savings after that.
One attractive possibility is integrating the AEssenseGrows system into a greenhouse to take advantage of sunlight. Gibson commented that solar panels are often impractical since they have major size/length requirements to meet energy demands. New, clean ways to generate horsepower for electricity may be the key. AEssenseGrows offers a lighting calculator with inputs for ROI, environment, output needs, and many other variables.
Above all, says Gibson, “don’t wing it.” Aeroponics requires intense environmental control. The cultivator must find the sweet spots for temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. Software to regulate processes is essential. Integrated pest management can also make the difference between bountiful harvest and catastrophic failure.
The AEtrium presents a unique opportunity for cannabis cultivators. It represents the culmination of indoor cultivation technology and an opportunity to seize the future. Gibson certainly believes so. “I think it is very interesting to see how creative our customers can be. They can do outstanding things. We’re looking forward to where the future can go.”