Innovation in the cannabis industry is accelerating. Look in any sector of the space, and you’ll find hardware and software development bringing more control and strategic power to operators.
Cultivation technology improvements enable operators to scale, increase their profit margins, and stay competitive in an increasingly cut-throat market. In this article, we’ll explore why technology innovations are the future of the industry and three examples of companies charging the way.
WHY INTEGRATE Cannabis Cultivation TECHNOLOGY
Technology may serve an immediate need, like automating one part of a production process, or a future benefit, like improving team morale and productivity. In general, a common goal in automating and integrating technology is attaining higher profitability.
What does integrating new cannabis technology look like? With disparate systems and departments, most organizations have many software solutions at play. Similarly, a cultivation facility has countless pieces of hardware, sensors, and controls. Integration of technology means that the company’s systems and equipment work harmoniously.
From crop steering to vertical farming to cannabis genetics, innovative companies in the cannabis industry are pushing the boundaries in helping cultivators grow their businesses and increase profitability.
INNOVATION IN TECH
Indoor and greenhouse cultivators are integrating environmental and root zone sensors to monitor and alter the plants growing environment. Higher yields and profitability can be achieved by incorporating innovative cultivating techniques that are referred to as ‘crop steering.’
Crop steering is the act of triggering hormonal responses in plants by manipulating and controlling their grow environment. This can be done through climate, like humidity or CO2 levels, as well as through feeding, by increasing or decreasing the WC (water content) of the substrate.
Crop steering is accomplished with a system of sensors, controls. Whether in a greenhouse or indoors, lighting and CO2 regulation are critical for optimal plant growth. Hardware systems automate control of supplemental lighting, shade systems, and CO2 regulation. Sensors monitor environmental conditions, like soil and climate, and automate irrigation systems to feed the plants exactly how much and when they need it.
Hand watering is not a viable option for commercial cannabis cultivators. Fertigation systems, widely used in agricultural industries, are key to scaling up any cultivation operation.
Automation feeding can cut down on labor time, human error from mixing incorrectly, and excessive use of costly nutrients. In addition, consistency is everything in producing high quality and high yields each time. Integrating a fertigation system supports the goal of maximizing yields.
One company named Rhythm does just that. Their Advanced Fertigation Systems (AFS) use the batch method of nutrient preparation and delivery. Sensors can be integrated into their system and data sent to central reporting on nutrient uptake. Developed with the cannabis industry in mind, Rhythm’s fertigation systems are helping growers scale and maintain consistency.
An integrated environmental control system (ECS) is the key to making strategic decisions in the grow room. Crop steering brings precision to the operation, but only if data is accessible to analysis. The power of centralized data allows you to test, track the results and change the strategy again in pursuit of perfection.
There are several vendors that offer climate and root zone sensors. Trolmaster is one company that provides an integrated monitoring system to indoor and greenhouse growers.
For optimal crop steering results, having control over climate conditions as well as feeding schedules is critical. Software providers like Trym, integrate with Trolmaster to connect the environmental data to the plants and track results through harvest.
For large-scale operations with numerous zones and facilities, software that’s connected to hardware allows remote management and monitoring. Because in the end, time is money. To execute crop steering successfully, technology integration is necessary.
Vertical farming is a method of cultivating plants indoors to maximize available space by stacking levels of LED lights and plants.
Multi-level racking systems hold custom-fitted grow trays. Custom-designed air ventilation systems have also been developed for these setups to ensure even airflow through the vertical tiers where the plants are located.
While the initial investment for a vertical farming setup is high, the ROI greatly increases in time. Not only are energy costs per gram of cannabis greatly diminished, but the total output of one facility is multiplied.
Fluence by OSRAM
Over the years, LED lights have proved themselves to be as powerful and high-yielding as HPS bulbs. They are quintessential to vertical farming.
Today, the yields from growing under LEDs can be two to three times greater than previously possible under HPS. To adapt to the innovation in vertical farming, Fluence has developed lighting that snaps right into the vertical racks for a plug-and-play system.
Vertical Air Solutions
The adoption of vertical farming presented some immediate challenges for cannabis cultivators. Innovation stems from identifying problems and developing solutions. Vertical Air Solutions was the first cannabis technology solution to address the problem of restricted airflow due to vertically stacked equipment and plants.
A traditional indoor airflow system has ducting that traverses the ceilings and exhausts to the outside of the grow space. With two or three layers, humid and stale air is not easily circulated. Microclimates form as plants transpire, necessitating constant airflow through each part of the canopy.
At the time, there was no system on the market that addressed airflow in a vertical farming setup. Vertical Air Solutions (VAS) designed and patented a built-in fan and ducting design that integrates into the racks themselves. Today, vertical farming facility designs are much more straightforward and integrated, thanks to the innovation by leading equipment manufacturers in the industry.
The third sector in which major innovation is taking place is in gene editing, commonly known as CRISPR. Cannabis cultivators have been crossing strains and selecting phenotypes for desirable traits for many decades. This is why today, there are countless strains out there that are much more potent than cannabis was back in the day.
With gene editing, years of breeding efforts are reduced to weeks. Gene editing provides the ability to selectively breed for specific qualities in a cannabis plant’s expression.
CRISPR technology directly changes the plant’s DNA but doesn’t introduce foreign DNA into the mix, and therefore is not the same as GMO editing. Some people are morally against interfering with DNA or “playing God.” Manual breeding and Crispr gene selection both enable growers to play a guiding role in the plant’s evolution.
There are many traits that can be isolated and enhanced through gene editing, like:
- Disease resistance
- Pest resistance
- Climate tolerance
- Terpene and cannabinoid selection
- Increase trichomes
- CBD/THC ratio
- Biomass improvement
PHOTO BY: JACKIE NIAM / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
The application of gene editing in the cannabis space begins with seeds. One company, CanBreed, founded in Israel and with cannabis operations in California, is producing the first stable and uniform hybrid cannabis seeds, with 100% of the traits of the parent plants.
Traditionally, cultivators produce clones to maintain identical phenotypes across their canopies. There are known drawbacks from repeated cloning, like genetic drift, high cost, and greater risk for pests/infections. Even high-tech cloning methods like tissue cultures do not prevent mother plants from showing age-related mutations. And eventually, cloning no longer produces genetically identical offspring.
CanBreed has licensed the CRISPR gene-editing technology to develop stable and uniform seeds for the cannabis and CBD industry. The company claims it has altered a gene in the cannabis plant to make the plant resistant to powdery mildew, one of the biggest threats to a cannabis crop. In the future, CanBreed will seek to enhance other desirable traits that can help farmers become more profitable.
The company recently purchased a 1.4-acre farm in Southern California and received its license to produce and breed hemp seeds. They expect to distribute 12.5 million hemp seeds in the first year and gradually ramp up to 50 million seeds per year.
To wrap up, we’ve reviewed three top areas of innovation in the cannabis cultivation sector. Crop steering, vertical farming, and gene editing are all pushing the boundaries of cultivation methods and outputs. As we all know, technology tends to accelerate in its innovation and adoption. It’s more important than ever to stay abreast of new developments that can give operators a competitive edge.