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Future Farming with Ocean Crops
With rising environmental pollution and increased strain of producing crops, we could look to the ocean as a viable alternative to traditional farming methods.
by Alex Teo

Traditional farming is fundamental to our daily lives as a source of food security. However, in the Asia-Pacific (APAC), intensive traditional farming habits have led to drastic environmental impacts – overfarming, overgrazing, soil degradation, environmental pollution, and more. In fact, nine out of 10 of the world’s most polluted rivers belong to APAC.1

In addition, the issue of water scarcity is becoming a pressing one, due to rapid population growth and urbanisation in Asia alone. If we could turn to ocean farming as an alternative means for food security, which opens up 70 per cent of the earth’s surface and combats the issue of water scarcity,2 we could be one step closer to a long-term sustainable farming solution – and that is what the team at Nemo’s Garden3 is trying to achieve.

To reduce the strain of traditional farming methods, they took their love for gardening underwater and brought terrestrial plants beneath the waves. They have since successfully harvested nutrient-rich plants off the coast of Italy, by developing a viable method for crop growth with environmental benefits for the plants and their surroundings.

The submerged biospheres of Nemo’s Garden enable more nutrient-dense produce and the structures of the biospheres provide an artificial reef for algae, clams, coral, and mussels to thrive. Yet, due to the annual growth season of harsh winters and short summers, the team’s innovation cycle was limited to one chance a year to optimise, test, and scale their product. This is where theSiemens Xcelerator portfolio4 comes into play – by providing a digital solution centred on a comprehensive Digital Twin of the biosphere, to define and refine the design from the interior of the dome to the surrounding environment, and even enable remote monitoring systems.

Nemo’s Garden Marine Biosphere

Nemo’s Garden is a series of biospheres submerged below the surface of the water, which provides a thriving environment by insulating the plants from direct sunlight and creating non-salinated water through evaporation.

The atmosphere within the biosphere must be carefully controlled as high humidity or temperatures would harm the plants. Using Siemens’ NX product design and engineering software, the team could model the domes digitally, and subsequently optimise the position of sensors, air circulation fans, and much more, based on the growth patterns of the plants inside.

Reinventing the Underwater Biodome

To create and maintain the optimal temperature for the terrestrial plants, the design and construction of the protective enclosure are highly critical. The sub-sea water currents and internal pressures require the biospheres to be robust, and the costs of manufacturing, transportation, and global deployment meant that lighter and more readily manufacturable biosphere designs are necessary as well.

With the help of Siemens’ Simcenter 3D simulation, which enables accelerated design iteration, the team could create a virtual subsea environment for the new dome designs. Then, Nemo’s Garden could virtually test how they handle different conditions to optimise the design; they are no longer limited by weather conditions, seasonality, and short growing seasons, or reliant on physical diving and manual monitoring. For example, the external form of the biosphere has a large influence on the drag from ocean currents, so if a design had a greater surface area, the mounting points would need to be engineered to handle the increased strain.

Redefining Processes

When evaluating the design and construction of the biospheres, it is also critical to understand the impact of the structures on the surrounding environment to reduce the impact on the surrounding environment. The biospheres provide an artificial reef environment by slowing the current around them, but the team at Nemo’s Garden faced some challenges – they wanted to evaluate and mitigate any potential negative effects the structure might have in the long term, such as the ways anchor points could impact sea-floor life, or ways the currents around the biospheres could be affected.

Simulation helps to answer these questions early on before costs become unmanageable.The adaptations to the biospheres are tested through simulation software in the virtual world, enabling the team to refine the designs and processes at a massively accelerated rate. Additionally, combining existing biosphere data with weather predictions can also improve plant growth within the biosphere. Sunny days produce more heat and humidity inside the biospheres, so the system will have to accommodate the variation.

A Digital-First Strategy

From construction to deployment, there is the need to carefully monitor the environment—both the inside and outside of the biospheres—to ensure optimal growing conditions. This is traditionally a heavily manual process performed by trained divers from within the biospheres. However, digitalisation, specifically using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithm, can help the team to do it remotely.

Just as with farming on the earth, there is a multitude of factors that can affect plant growth underwater in the biospheres—sunlight, humidity, O2/CO2 concentrations and more—so the team designed robust control systems that could actively monitor and adjust the environment with much more precision compared to traditional farming.

By outfitting each biosphere with a sensor and controls suite, the environmental and growth data can be captured and analysed. Some of this data directly controls operations within the biosphere – like the fan speed for instance, which will likely be controlled locally. The data is also sent onshore to create artificially intelligent and machine learning models of the growth patterns within the biospheres. One such model leveraged visual data from terrestrial growth and previous growth seasons within the Nemo’s Garden biospheres, where the model was used to understand the timeline for harvesting the plants at their peak for nutrient content.

In addition to speeding up the design and development of the biospheres, Nemo’s Garden also needed to optimise and scale the habitats for growing, tracking, and harvesting to achieve their sustainable business goals—and this entails a diverse investment in today’s technologies and a digital-first strategy.

In partnership with Siemens, the team at Nemo’s Garden is transforming their agriculture platform into a commercially viable subsea farming platform that can be sustainably deployed around the world, especially in areas where environmental or economic reasons prevent traditional plant growth. The team is still pushing toward their ultimate goal of providing more food for the world’s population with hundreds of installations around the globe, but they are already exploring ways to further refine their undersea agriculture platform, leveraging Siemens’ software as a service and the digital twin.

Like Nemo’s Garden, which continues to propagate new ideas and innovations that will increase their yields while further decreasing their environmental footprint, Siemens hopes to empower companies of all sizes—be it physical scaling, or emissions scope of manufacturing—to accelerate the development of sustainable products for a better, greener future.

References

  1. Osti, R. P. (2020, September 25). The Health of Asia’s Rivers Lies Both in the Cities and on the Farms. Asian Development Bank. Retrieved from https://blogs.adb.org/blog/health-asia-s-rivers-lies-both-cities-and-farms
  2. LePan, N. (2021, January 28). How much of Earth’s surface is covered by each country – in one graphic. World Economic Forum. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/earth-surface-ocean-visualization-science-countries-russia-canada-china/
  3. Nemo’s Garden. Retrieved from http://www.nemosgarden.com/
  4. Siemens Digital Industries Software. Siemens Xcelerator. Retrieved from https://www.sw.siemens.com/en-US/digital-transformation/

About the Author

Alex Teo
Alex Teo is Managing Director and Vice President of Siemens Digital Industries Software in Southeast Asia. Alex is responsible for managing all sales, through direct sales and indirect channel partners across the region, increasing Siemens Digital Industries Software’s market share and extending its leading position through customer innovation, thought leadership and business execution.

Prior to this appointment, he served as the Regional Sales Director of ASEAN to grow the business through channel expansion and direct selling in strategic accounts for three years.

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