To boldly grow: how space agtech shapes farming on Earth

Baby red romaine lettuce growing in a vertical farm, technology made possible thanks to space agtech innovation.

  • Space innovation can transform terrestrial agriculture, as it has other sectors.
  • Vertical farming and LED lighting are two past examples of agtech developed in space.
  • Seeds could be the next frontier for space agtech.

The effects of climate change are impossible to ignore, particularly as record-breaking temperatures, tides and weather events wreak havoc across the globe. Worldwide, 12 million hectares of land valuable to agriculture are lost every year, and global agriculture production will need to increase by 70% to meet the demand of an expanding population. It’s no surprise that we are seeing steady growth, investment and, most importantly, innovation in the agtech market, including the space industry.

The value that space innovation has already created here on Earth is immeasurable. NASA says its return on investment on the US economy is more than three times its annual budget. From cellular data and hurricane predictions to robotics and health science, many aspects of our lives are made significantly easier, more efficient or more enjoyable thanks to the breakthroughs and utilization made in space. We are now seeing tremendous potential for research and technological advancement for agtech in space, with applications that will both enable future prolonged extraterrestrial habitation, as well as improve agricultural practices here on Earth. 

Developing sustainable and scalable food sources for astronauts will be critical to our ability to successfully establish and expand new destinations in space. A few commercial companies, including Voyager, are actively developing new commercial space stations to replace the International Space Station (ISS), and with these new destinations comes a need to provide nutrient-dense food for inhabitants. 

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Dubai is now home to the largest vertical farm in the world

The building will produce 2 million pounds of greens per year, in a country that currently imports nearly all of its food.


If you walk into a grocery store in Dubai, the spinach on the shelves will probably be from Europe—or even from as far away as the United States. Because of limited arable land and water, the United Arab Emirates imports about 90% of its food. But inside a warehouse-like building near the Dubai airport, a new vertical farm is now beginning to grow more than 2 million pounds of local leafy greens per year.

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Carbon Robotics unveils new farm tech that kills weeds by zapping them with a laser


Carbon Robotics, an agricultural robotics company, today unveiled its 2022 LaserWeeder implement, an autonomous, laserweeding pull-behind robot that seamlessly attaches to the back of tractors.

The new LaserWeeder is a precise, organic, and cost-effective weed control solution for large-scale specialty row crops.

In addition to an updated build, the 2022 LaserWeeder features 30 industrial CO2 lasers, more than 3X the lasers in Carbon Robotics’ self-driving Autonomous LaserWeeder, creating an average weeding capacity of two acres per hour. 

Growers who use Carbon Robotics’ implements are seeing up to 80 percent savings in weed management costs, with a break-even period of 2-3 years.

Paul Mikesell, Carbon Robotics CEO and founder, says: “We’ve proven the effectiveness of our laserweeding technology and the immense benefits it offers farmers, including healthier crops and soil, decreased herbicide use, and reduced chemical and labor costs.

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Inventing and scaling the world’s largest urban vertical farming network

Launching a successful new business concept requires a strong purpose, a focus on research, an innovative business model, and a willingness to adapt to the market.

Starting a new business is tough for any start-up, but building a company on an entirely new business concept presents a whole other level of challenges. In a conversation with McKinsey’s Jerome Königsfeld, Infarm CEO and cofounder Erez Galonska shares his passion and vision to change the way people eat and reflects on his learnings from bringing the Infarm food-production concept to 50 percent of the world’s largest food retailers.

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This stunning light display could make crops more sustainable

The display highlights the surprising science behind how light design can help plants grow.


When you think of twinkling lights at night, you probably imagine sparkling cityscapes rather than fields of rural farms.

Not so with Studio Roosegaarde’s latest project, Grow. Founder Daan Roosegaarde and his team swathed over 215,000 square feet of leek crops in undulating red, blue, and UV LED light. They activate the lights at night, giving the field the appearance of glowing creatures at the bottom of the ocean instead of a farm. The agency calls it an “homage to the beauty of agriculture,” but it also highlights the surprising science behind how light design can help plants grow

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2-Acre Vertical Farm Run By AI And Robots Out-Produces 720-Acre Flat Farm

Andrea D. Steffen


Plenty is an ag-tech startup in San Francisco, co-founded by Nate Storey, that is reinventing farms and farming. Storey, who is also the company’s chief science officer, says the future of farms is vertical and indoors because that way, the food can grow anywhere in the world, year-round; and the future of farms employ robots and AI to continually improve the quality of growth for fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Plenty does all these things and uses 95% less water and 99% less land because of it.

In recent years, farmers on flat farms have been using new tools for making farming better or easier. They’re using drones and robots to improve crop maintenance, while artificial intelligence is also on the rise, with over 1,600 startups and total investments reaching tens of billions of dollars. Plenty is one of those startups. However, flat farms still use a lot of water and land, while a Plenty vertical farm can produce the same quantity of fruits and vegetables as a 720-acre flat farm, but on only 2 acres!

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Factory-farmed salmon: does it make sense to grow fish in indoor tanks?

Mark Kurlansky

US inland farms offer an alternative to diminishing wild Atlantic stocks, but the price tag is bigger carbon emissions

The state of Maine once had one of North America’s great wild Atlantic salmon runs, now destroyed by polluting paper, textile, and saw mills and the construction of hundreds of dams. 

It was replaced with open-pen salmon farming, but that created new problems. Now a new kind of salmon farming – inland rather than offshore – is supposed to solve all those problems and more, providing jobs and putting an end to escaped fish polluting the remaining wild stocks.

One of these land-based salmon farms is planned for Bucksport, a down-on-its-luck industrial town of 5,000 people on the estuary of the Penobscot, a struggling wild salmon river. Another is intended for Belfast, population 6,700, further south on scenic Penobscot Bay. As in much of coastal Maine, in the north-eastern corner of the US, this historic town has become a haven for affluent incomers, who buy summer homes and attract shops and boutiques.

Until 2014, Bucksport was home to the Verso paper mill. When it closed about 500 people lost their jobs, and the town was left with an ugly, smoke-stacked industrial site. Like most paper mills, it was extremely polluting. The fish farm, part of a Maine company called Whole Oceans, has been welcomed, the local view being that it would be less polluting than a paper mill and might also replace some of the lost jobs. “I’m not sure we could do any better than what we’re doing. If there was [something], I don’t know what it would be,” says town manager Sue Lessard.

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This coffee table’s sliding indoor garden is the ultimate millennial-friendly plant parenting hack


Home gardening is difficult enough as it is, but it gets even trickier when you live in small city quarters. With city living’s and home gardening’s popularity rising in recent years, those of us who live in apartment complexes might feel discouraged from starting home garden projects – they’re messy and time-consuming, not to mention that a lot of space is usually a prerequisite. That’s why SOLE was created. SOLE, a home gardening system, poses first as a small coffee table only to reveal a hidden, self-maintained, miniature garden for city dwellers who want to fill their homes up with some natural greens, but not the fuss that typically comes with them.

More people are moving into cities, which means that access to home gardening is decreasing since natural light is harder to come by and smaller apartment spaces, like efficiency studios, are preferred. Thankfully, SOLE’s coffee table was designed to take up as little space as possible in order to fit into even the smallest of studios. Indoor urban gardening is usually practiced by using grow box containers that require a lot of window ledge space and natural sunlight – both of which can be hard to come by in city apartment searches. In order to make home gardening possible in any city-living space, SOLE maintains the perfect climate, temperature, and nutrients for you and your chosen plants so long as they fit inside the coffee table’s extensive body. While researching the influence of temperature, exposure time, intensity, color from visible light, along with the distance and angle of light distribution, the designers behind SOLE decided to incorporate a lighting system that would enhance plant growth by imitating the effect the sun’s rays have on indoor plants.

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Self-watering soil could transform farming


Researchers planted radishes in this miniature greenhouse using their self-watering soil and compared it to sandy soil found in dry regions of the world.

A new type of soil created by engineers at The University of Texas at Austin can pull water from the air and distribute it to plants, potentially expanding the map of farmable land around the globe to previously inhospitable places and reducing water use in agriculture at a time of growing droughts.

As published in ACS Materials Letters, the team’s atmospheric water irrigation system uses super-moisture-absorbent gels to capture water from the air. When the soil is heated to a certain temperature, the gels release the water, making it available to plants. When the soil distributes water, some of it goes back into the air, increasing humidity and making it easier to continue the harvesting cycle.

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World’s 1st fully autonomous fruit-picking drones are smarter than humans


Israel-based agricultural drone manufacturer Tevel Aerobotics Technologies Ltd. is completing its third round of funding – a $20 million financing round raising its valuation to a cool $45 million

These orders are meant for autonomous drones developed by Tevel Aerobotics which are equipped with a one-meter long mechanical claw. This mechanical extension can be used to pick fruit or for thinning and pruning tasks in orchards.

Tevel claims to use artificial intelligence capabilities on a ground-based mobile unit that acts as the autonomous brain of the drones. The brain lets them identify fruit types, blemishes, and the level of ripeness.

Even though the global fruit-cultivation is expected to grow, the company expects the number of agricultural workers in the field to reduce, projecting a a potential for $3 billion in annual sales to growers in the U.S. and Europe

The wide range of utility that drones offer is sure to make them a popular instrument in the coming years. As a testimony to this, Israel-based agricultural drone manufacturer Tevel Aerobotics Technologies Ltd. is completing its third round of funding – a $20 million financing round raising its valuation to a cool $45 million.

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Alphabet’s Mineral moonshot wants to help farmers with robotic plant buggies


The tech could lead to more sustainable farming practices.

 In 2018, Alphabet’s X lab said it was in the process of exploring how it could use artificial intelligence to improve farming. On Monday, X announced that its “computational agriculture” project is called Mineral. The Mineral team has spent the last several years “developing and testing a range of software and hardware prototypes based on breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, simulation, sensors, robotics and more.”

One of the tools that has come out of the project is a robotic plant buggy. Powered by solar panels, the machine makes its way across a farmer’s field, examining every plant it passes along the way with an array of cameras and sensors. In conjunction with satellite, weather and soil data, Mineral says the buggy and its AI software can identify patterns and give farmers insights into their crops.

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Robot reapers and AI: Just another day on the farm


Pressures on agriculture have forced a technological revolution that are driving a new age of farming.

The agriculture industry has hit a turning point. Faced with a massive labor crunch and environmental instability, aggressive technology deployments are no longer an option for outliers in the sector, but a necessary and critical element in the success of the farm.

Enabling the transformation are a host of new developers, but also legacy companies with deep roots in agriculture. Smart technology from companies like John Deere, for example, is helping farmers to produce more with less and create more successful crops, all while having a smaller impact on the land and environment. In contrast to prevailing wisdom that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, John Deere is employing AI and machine learning in its equipment to identify and enable needed actions at a scope and speed beyond human capacity, automating farming actions through smart robotics to enable consistent and precise actions at large scale, and providing precise, geospatial intelligence generated with machine technology and coupled with cloud-stored data to enable sustainable farming.

In other words, it’s like farming with technologies that might be more commonly associated with NASA than a tractor company. I caught up with Dr. Cristian Dima, Lead of Advanced Algorithms, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, to discuss the changes underway in the farming sector and what we can expect going forward.

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