Sustainably feeding the planet is at the heart of the farm-to-table movement and the motivation behind a new breed of tech companies working to make locally grown herbs and vegetables commercially viable. Balena is there to help.
For Berlin-based Farm-as-a-Service company Infarm, the answer to food-to-table farming is remote-controlled microfarms that use edge technology to optimize growing conditions. These systems gather data that makes each small, local harvest better than the last.
With 1000 farms deployed to grocers, restaurants, and cities in dozens of countries around the world, the technical requirements to pull that off aren’t trivial. To make it all work, Infarm must manage each specific growing location and take advantage of all the data they gather to continuously improve crops.
Imagine that: data-driven growth of basil, pak choi, Romaine lettuce, parsley and a dozen of other plants. Delicious!
“Our goal is X number of plants are delivered of certain quality,” said Pedro Silva, head of software and IoT at Infarm. “We also collect all sorts of data on temperature, soil, humidity, and maturity data so growers know what to plant and what to harvest. Maintainers get data to understand the ideal soil PH, light and water, and crop experts get data that’s combined from different farms. Compiled data helps detect the best yield possible.”
Edge technology and management makes it possible
Infarm’s Farming-as-a-Service module required technology to manage all the remote devices doing the work. Their IoT fleet owners turned to balena to take advantage of the platform’s native support for containers, remote management, and hands-free provisioning at a broad scale.
“We looked at growing our own solution, but we quickly realized that it didn’t make sense to invest the time in that,” said Nelson Pina, Infarm’s IoT Tech Lead. “An off-the-shelf solution like balena was fast and wasn’t something we had to invest development hours in, or maintain. We wanted to invest in our business logic, not the platform.”
To do that, Infarm created a cloud-based farming platform that can gather data and provide feedback to growers while also remotely managing the platform running on the IoT devices themselves. This was part of a larger goal of separating the underlying system from the application, an existing capability built into balena’s container-ready host environment, called balenaOS.
“We use microservices, which help our team isolate the specific service they are working on and not interfere with another service,” said Pina. Previously, the platform and services were integrated, which was a big disadvantage to scaling out as the number of Infarm locations grew.
Owning the network
At the same time, Infarm needed to support cellular connectivity to monitor and maintain devices, and bluetooth technology to enable mobile devices growers use at each farm site. This combination was important because many infarm locations are located in supermarkets that don’t typically allow third parties to use their internal Internet networks. By deploying cellular as their main networking choice for data communications, and secure VPN provided by balenaCloud, Infarm can seamlessly integrate into almost any location.
"Cellular is much more reliable than a site's own network infrastructure, and we wanted to have full control over the network connectivity layer," Pina said.
Infarm uses that cellular network to push updates to devices daily, and they take advantage of balena’s delta capability, which can dramatically reduce bandwidth needs by pushing to devices only the container layers that change, not whole binaries. This helps lower cellular data costs, and reflects Infarm’s cost-reduction model that makes Farm-as-a-Service viable.
For example, Infarms use 95% less water, 75% less fertilizers, and 90% less transportation than comparable non-local farms. These numbers translate to savings that help make Infarms cost-effective.
Taking advantage of the entire balena ecosystem
Though they initially started with a small proprietary IoT device at Infarm sites, the company switched to the balenaFin, a Raspberry Pi CM3 carrier board with community-standard GPIO, onboard eMMC and built-in capability for SIMs and cellular modems. The balenaFin offers more compute power than their original device choice, and it’s a hardened solution that can better withstand movement and environment contaminants. This was a key requirement for their platform, which relies on an “always on” approach.
“Balena offers a modern platform -- hardware and software -- that enables our farms to be always online and gives us the ability to continuously capture data and monitor our crops,” said Silva.
Such an approach wasn’t available even a few years ago when some of the first Farm-as-a-Service companies were getting started, said Pina. “Companies could do the functional stuff, but not the monitoring and fleet management. The management didn’t exist, but now it can be offloaded to balena.”
By focusing on their core technology and letting balena handle device management, Infarm has been able to adapt very quickly to the needs of their customers -- and the crops they’re growing.
“We can change things very quickly, and we just want to be ready to take the next step as soon as we can,” Pina said.
In order to make Farming-as-a-Service viable over the long-term, Infarm carefully chooses partners that are flexible, adaptable and can help drive inFarm innovation. They felt confident a partnership with balena would do just that.
“How we choose a partner to go on this journey with us is very important,” Silva said. “We’re trying to serve needs that aren’t there yet. We consciously leverage our partners to give us insights and modern tools. With balena, there’s a level of confidence that they’re making the right decisions and taking the right path in how they communicate and grow their platform. We’re closely aligned and we trust their approach and people.”
This trust has allowed Infarm to become bolder and push the limits of their technology. For example, Infarm is looking to do more image analysis on the edge that can add another layer of visual monitoring and data analytics to ensure quality crop yields.
“Our implicit trust in seeing what balena is working on gives us the confidence to push the boundaries of features on our own product,” Silva said.
That confidence helps ensure Infarm delivers high-quality produce in new, sustainable farm-to-table ways.
“Our ultimate goal is to give back to farmers and improve how farming happens, help improve traditional farming and somehow make that available to farmers,” Pina said.
If you’re looking to disrupt a market or you just want a better way to manage your IoT devices, learn more at balena.io, and join our growing community of partners.