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Addressing Urbanisation Challenges through IT Innovation

Belgium Campus iTversity has partnered with Penn State University to construct a small-scale hydroponic system and automated farming robot. The project aims to ensure food security in urban areas while promoting cultural competence and effective leadership amongst participating students.

It forms part of Belgium Campus iTversity’s larger effort to address urbanisation challenges through the ongoing development of smart city solutions. The IT institution is in the process of building an Urbanisation Learning Factory, which will house this solution and serve as an incubation hub for future ones.

Why is urbanisation an issue?

Urbanisation is the increasing migration of the world’s population from rural to urban areas. There are many reasons people choose to make this move, the majority of which centre on achieving a higher standard of living. After all, urban areas offer increased job opportunities, higher wages, improved amenities, and better healthcare and housing.

But while increased urbanisation has its benefits, it is also the cause of serious environmental issues and their resultant health conditions. These issues include land degradation, increased pollution, water shortages, waste mismanagement, overcrowding, and energy over-consumption. The resulting health conditions for which include poor nutrition, the contraction and transmission of diseases, and a general deterioration of health.

With the world’s urban population predicted to increase from 4.46 billion as of 2021 to 6.68 billion by 2050, the need for smart city solutions that optimise the use of natural resources and reduce the effect increased urbanisation has on the environment is more urgent than ever!

How this project addresses urbanisation challenges  

Hydroponic farming is an ancient technique that involves growing plants without the need for soil, using a flow of nutrient-enriched water. The technique itself addresses a number of urbanisation challenges in the following ways:

1) Hydroponic greenhouses allow a constant food supply, regardless of the soil quality, weather conditions, or time of the year.

2) It saves space – an important component in overcrowded areas. Because plants within the system receive nutrients and water directly, they do not need to branch their roots out in search of these things, meaning they can be planted quite close together.

3) It conserves water – a scarce resource in overpopulated areas. Hydroponics conserves up to 90% more water than traditional farming by recirculating the water that is not absorbed by the plants within the system.

4) Because hydroponics allows food to be grown locally, it removes the need for transportation, which reduces carbon emissions and wastage caused by food going off in transit.

So, where do our participating students come in? Using their IT and engineering expertise to design the optimal hydroponic system and build a farming robot to automate the agricultural cycle, our students will produce a smart cities solution capable of producing enough food to ensure food security within an urban area.

Project Components

Working in three teams through virtual collaboration, 15 software engineering students from Belgium Campus and 8 mechanical engineering students from Penn State are working together to design and build the following:

Team 1: A single-level hydroponic system.

Team 2: An automated farming robot capable of navigating the hydroponic system to allow planting and harvesting.

Team 3: A robot arm with the reach, rotate, and clasping capabilities needed to plant and harvest crops.

Together, these three innovations will serve as proof of concept for the effective automation of a hydroponic farm within an urban area.

“IT makes things more efficient and enhances what already exists, which is the goal of every field – to improve. I got into IT because I want to create things that make people’s lives better, and I feel that this project is a good start.” – 3rd-year software engineering student at Belgium Campus, Sonwabile Balite.

The students have completed the ideation and design phase of the project and are in the process of building the prototype. We are eager to see the finished project. Keep an eye on our social media to see what they are able to engineer!

By Louise Fuller

 

Sources:

Kuddus, M.A., Tynan, E. & McBryde, E. Urbanization: a problem for the rich and the poor?. Public Health Rev 41, 1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40985-019-0116-0 UN (World Urbanization Prospects 2018). https://population.un.org/wup/Download/

Schnitzler, W.. (2012). Urban Hydroponics for Green and Clean Cities and for Food Security. Acta horticulturae. 1004. 13-26. 10.17660/ActaHortic.2013.1004.1.