Sensors, data and control: How the cannabis industry got high (tech) with IoT
Cannabis growers, like other agriculturalists, are turning to internet-of-things (IoT) technologies, essentially comprising sensor devices and data analytics, to bring new efficiencies to their operations, and improve yields and profits. The impact has been seismic.
Marijuana is a booming business in North America. US states are loosening their marijuana laws. At last count, nine had legalised its recreational usage, and 21 had legalised its medical usage. Canada is set to legalise recreational usage everywhere, with bricks-and-mortar pot stores coming soon.
Cannabis companies are recruiting senior management from the technology and consultancy fields. Seattle-based GrowLife, a provider of hydroponic equipment and other cultivation supplies, has appointed Microsoft and Yahoo veteran Marco Hegyi as chief executive.
Hegyi was at Microsoft for five years, until 2006, heading programme management for its Windows and Office beta releases, before joining Yahoo as senior director of global product management and search marketing.
Colorado based urban-gro, meanwhile, provides solutions, services and technology for cultivating cannabis. It has just promoted Dan Droller as executive vice president of operations, citing his experience in the tech space.
Droller has held senior roles at Deloitte Consulting, Credo Mobile, and Music for America, as well as business development positions with cannabis software platform Massroots and mobile gaming company Chartboost.
Both companies are developing new technologies to enhance their propositions to the commercial cannabis-growing community. Hegyi had already seen the opportunity, he says, that supplying the ‘picks and shovels’ for cannabis cultivation would be more profitable than the growing itself.
At GrowLife, he could also see the cannabis industry was facing chronic over-supply, and launched GrowLife Innovations, to developing an ‘vertical growing system’ to raise the quality and reduce the cost of cannabis production in limited indoor growing spaces.
Between 2016 and 2017, wholesale cannabis prices fell from $1,789 to $1,562 per pound. The GrowLife system – using “state-of-the-art” lighting, climate control and feeding – aims to reduce the cost of production to just 35 cents a gram.
The system is built around computer-monitoring and management of the cultivation process. It includes over 25 sensors, taking data points such as humidity, temperature, CO2 levels, lighting, and plant conditions. The system adjusts the controls to optimise the growing conditions.
GrowLife has filed a patent and is engaged in a proof-of-concept, deployed in in 8×8 foot scalable grow rooms, with a licensed growing facility in Colorado, which claims a 76 per cent reduction in energy costs. Hegyi now wants to bring the technology to market.
“The sensors collect, store, analyse and trigger actions allowing us to replicate environments for optimised growing,” explains Hegyi.
“We know plants grow better in specific moisture environments, for example, which vary concentration during different grow phases along with the right amount of wind and light levels. We can replicate these using our system for growing specific plants or strains. Certain strains need more moisture, some need less, and our system is designed for providing for these conditions.”
Meanwhile, at urban-gro, Droller leads the company’s Soleil Technologies unit, developing a “data-driven, high-density IoT architecture platform”, comprising sensors, control systems, and software for precision farming.
“The ability to sense, monitor, and control with one product solution is evolving commercial cultivation,” says Droller. “The cannabis and horticulture industries in general represent an immense opportunity to benefit from the scalability and smart application of our technology.”
The company’s solutions process big data at scale. Data analytics and predictive metrics enable its customers to make faster, smarter decisions for improved and repeatable crop outcomes.
“We’re taking some of the best-in-class technologies from mature industries, like pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, and building automation, and improving upon them and their function in order to apply them to the rapidly expanding cannabis sector.”
Droller continues: “The use of sensors in cannabis cultivation is not new, but there were maybe one or two sensors in the room, making it impossible to track the microclimates within a dense canopy. IoT has allowed growers to move from wired sensors to high-density wireless sensors which provide more granular data and offer a truer insight into environmental conditions.”
His company’s Soleil Sense and Control products, along with its Soleil 360 dashboard, provide growers with data insights and control functions in a single interface. As the technology becomes standard among growers, competition intensifies, and marginal gains count.
“It will be critical for growers to understand and automate the programming of ideal growing environments based on the plant genetics present. When growing multiple genetics in one room, high-density data resolution is necessary in order to understand the effects of growing multiple strains in close proximity, whether symbiotic or disadvantageous.”
What, then, in real terms has been the impact of these twin solutions on cannabis growers’ yields, efficiencies, and profits? The results have been transformative, say both parties.
“Our licensed cultivation customer grew and harvested 70 plants in a space that would traditionally allow only up to 15 plants. These plants required less electricity to bring to harvest,” says Hegyi. GrowLife is testing the pilot harvest for quality metrics like tetrahydrocannabinol levels and pesticides, as well.
Droller says there is not ‘silver bullet’ for improving yields and profits. Instead, IoT tools simply provide more data and deeper insights to inform growing practices.
“Instead of waiting until post-harvest to assess the success of a grow cycle, cultivators are able to evaluate parameters at any time and use data replay to compare with statistics from a previous cycle,” he says.
“In essence, the data history becomes a ‘recipe book’ from which cultivators can make tweaks and adjustments or simply follow a proven program to achieve desired results.”