Unplugged

Wireless Tech Growing in Greenhouse

Aug/Sept 2014

Greenhouse. Glasshouse. Conservatory. Hothouse. Whatever you call it, the words “indoor garden” invoke images of tables bursting with colorful orchids or captive tomato plants branching toward the sky. Beauty, food, calm—these are the promises of a greenhouse in full swing. Plus, during these dog days of summer, an environmentally-controlled greenhouse offers a tropical respite from the heat that’s good for the body and soul.

Hobby greenhouses are generally a labor of love, versus the large scale commercial indoor farms that produce much of the lettuce and tomatoes consumed in the United States. Commercial greenhouses have long used sensors to monitor environmental conditions and drive controllers that automatically adjust conditions when needed, such as opening or closing roof vents to control temperature. Until recently, home growers lacked similar automated tools, and, so, attended to these tasks by hand.

While automated tools exist for the hobby gardener, they are standalone devices not connected to each other or the Internet. This is the problem Skye Hanke, chief product officer for Swarm Technologies LLC, set out to solve. Skye is a third-generation gardener, who through his work in marketing and product development for indoor gardening suppliers observed the flush of high-tech controllers finding their way into indoor gardens were all “islands:” providing quality information to the gardener, one device at a time, generally by way of an on-device display.

Thus, even with high-tech controllers in every corner of in an indoor garden, the gardener still needed to physically inspect them daily to ensure the garden is operating within the parameters needed for a bountiful harvest. Every day, rain or shine, even when nothing is wrong, the hobby indoor gardener had to make their daily inspection rounds.

Swarm Technologies’ SmartBee system eliminates much of the drudgery associated with monitoring grow space conditions with a grow room automation system anchored by their Hive gateway. Introduced at the Maximum Yield Gardening Expo in San Mateo last month, the Hive collects information from sensors and other devices throughout the grow space using Zigbee wireless protocol, processes incoming data for immediate action with an onboard Java application, and transmits grow space data to the cloud through a hub connected to the user’s Internet router.

Zigbee allows the various SmartBee modules for environmental control (ventilation, air temperature, and humidity), irrigation, power management, and security to connect to each other and the Hive using self-forming and self-healing mesh networking technology. The system even includes “bottle-top dosers” that can automatically adjust the strength or pH of the nutrient solution when a sensor module floating in the reservoir reports that these parameters are out of spec. Data from the garden can be viewed, and target parameters adjusted, using a smartphone app or Web portal.

Another wireless contender for the indoor garden automation market is the GroBot Evolution from PurGro Electronics. Now in its second generation, the GroBot Evo “runs all aspects of your grow room right down to mixing and injecting the nutrients,” according to Greg Richter, PurGro Electronics president.

The GroBot Evo control unit is its own Wi-Fi hotspot, by which it connects to remote equipment throughout the grow space using Zigbee and to the Internet using Wi-Fi. It’s additionally a nutrient dosing system with four onboard containers for nutrient stock solutions that are mixed into water pumped through the control unit.

The GroBot Evo collects data from sensors throughout the garden including thermometers, hygrometers (humidity sensors), pH and TDS (total dissolved solids, a measure of nutrient strength) meters, lighting systems, ventilation equipment, and cameras. Just about any type of electrical component can be controlled by GroBot Evo by way of separately purchased “pluggable modules.”

GroBot is operated by a Web interface that accesses the GroBot control unit’s IP address from a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Users can monitor current and historical conditions, remotely turn equipment on or off, and change control parameters through this interface.

For those gardeners seeking a technology solution to a single problem rather than a comprehensive garden management system, more and more indoor garden equipment is going wireless. Sun Systems’ Sun Winch, for example, gives the gardener Bluetooth control over the hanging height of up to eight 50-lb. lighting fixtures—helpful for vertical gardens or other small-commercial applications where it may not be easy to reach all of the fixtures that light up a grow space.

Similarly, the Genesis Remote LCD lighting ballast from Dynamiq Lighting allows remote control over grow light timing and brightness from a handheld controller, another convenience for gardeners with crowded indoor growing spaces. LaCrosse Technology’s Temp & Humidity Alert system connects and analyzes sensor data using a gateway connected to the user’s Internet router, similar to SmartBee.

Test equipment manufacturer Bluelab chose to anchor their Guardian Monitor Connect, which measures nutrient solution temperature, pH and TDS, to a laptop using a USB Bluetooth dongle. As long as the laptop is connected to the Internet, it transmits nutrient solution status to the cloud.

So the next time you see a backyard greenhouse, instead of thinking of it as only a sub-tropical paradise, think of it as a hotbed of wireless innovation, as well as a place to relax, grow food and beautiful flowers, and escape from summer’s heat.


Laurie Lamberth recently moved her mobile strategy and business development practice to mile-high Denver, where she intends to erect a greenhouse in order to continue year-round gardening. Learn more about her consultancy, and link to her prior Connected World articles, at laurielamberth.com and 151advisors.com.

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