While cannabis is often referred to as weed, cultivating the plant isn’t always as simple as letting it grow like a weed. In fact, with many cultivation efforts taking place indoors, growing cannabis plants can quickly escalate into a very complex activity.
Growing cannabis indoors is beneficial as it gives the cultivator the ability to control the environment, but this comes at a massive cost as moving indoors means artificial lighting is needed.
In order to emulate the sun, growers have often made use of High Pressure Sodium or Metal Halide lighting. These lighting solutions are incredibly expensive and consume a whack of power which means that in South Africa, growing indoors is less than ideal.
But two Masters students at Wits University have developed a novel way of growing cannabis indoors using LED lighting (more on this in a bit) and artificial intelligence.
The solution was developed by Constant Beckerling and Anlo van Wyk as part of the Gauteng Accelerator Programme held annually by the Innovation Hub. The pair of engineering students are describe as “passionate cannabis growers” and are working on agritech solutions for the cannabis sector in South Africa.
“There is a matrix of factors for cannabis cultivation that we consider. As an engineering startup we are developing cultivation technologies for the African climate. For cannabis cultivation, South Africa faces shortcomings such as water stress and irregular electricity supply at a high cost. But the country also has strengths such as superior solar radiation and being one of the first countries that are in the process of commercialising cannabis,” explains Beckerling.
Let’s start with the most important bit – lighting.
These LEDs aren’t your run-of-the-mill LEDs you might find in your PC fans, but rather LEDs designed specifically for growing cannabis. The engineers claims that their lighting is 2.5 times more efficient on electricity than High Pressure Sodium lamps. The lamps also lasts longer, 80 000 hours to be exact. Compared to the roughly 5 000 hours of life you can eek out of a High Pressure Sodium or Metal Halide lamp, that’s mighty impressive.
Artificial intelligence would be employed to control the intensity of the lighting as LEDs can be dimmed. This could lead to further cost savings not to mention an even more highly controlled environment.
“So we could implement an artificial intelligence algorithm that takes in environmental input and based on those inputs it controls what the lighting output should be in that specific moment. This leads to optimisation of power consumption which brings down electricity costs,” van Wyk explained.
How much money could using AI controlled LEDs save a grower? Just in electricity costs the pair of students claim a grower could save R25 million per hectare over five years.
As for a growing medium, the pair are using a hydroponic solution with their own nutrients.
“We are doing a cannabis-specific hydroponic nutrient that we formulate completely organically, and we are planning to register it as a type 2 organic fertilizer in line with the regulations of South African law,” explained Beckerling.
The students are planning on opening a demonstration facility to showcase how their solution works and even established a company last year. AgriSmart Engineering isn’t just focused on cannabis though but is looking about how botany and engineering can be married.
According to Wits, Biopark, a division of The Innovation Hub offered AgriSmart an incubation contract which has been accepted.
We’re curious to see what other agricultural inefficiencies Beckerling and van Wyk can address. While Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill is still a ways away from becoming law, there is already a lot of talk about the cultivation of the plant and solutions such as the one above could help independent producers compete with larger corporations.