Water shortage and pollution are environmental threats affecting large parts of EU as well as the entire world. Climate change is expected to further increase water shortage and threaten food production. This problem cannot be solved by a single effort butmust be addressed on many levels. The overall objective of the iPONICS project is to provide small-scale farmers with an innovative off-grid, low-cost solution in order to adapt agricultural production to climate change and limited water supply, converting a low-productivity agricultural land to high-productivity. The proposed solution introduces an affordable innovative approach to minimize water demand in the agricultural sector, reduce energy requirements and diffuse pollution by agriculture and is, therefore, not limited to Cyprus but it can be implemented in the whole of EU or even globally. Existing hydroponics solutions suffer either from high investment cost for small-scale farmers (the majority of farmers), or, inefficiency beyond hobby-type systems. Considering i) the lack of solutions that can offer low investment cost and high productivity together with ii) a market of many small-scale farmers for which hydroponics is currently not viable and iii) the large water savings that can be achieved evenby small farms when combined due to their large number in many countries, it becomes clear that there exists both a business opportunity and a tool in alleviating the effects of water shortage and climate change.
The project innovation lies in combining and leveraging a number of existing technologies in order to provide small-scale farmers with advanced hydroponics solutions that would normally be inaccessible. The first major innovation of the project is combining conventional with ebb and flow hydroponics, exploiting the advantages of both while alleviating their drawbacks of each. This is expected to facilitate high yields (close to conventional hydroponics) from low-yield lands at an initial investment cost close to hobby-type, Do-It-Yourself hydroponics, providing high returns. The second innovation is the unique automation system that will provide advanced control and monitoring at a small fraction of the cost of current state-of-the-art solutions. This will be achieved by combining principles of distributed and centralized control (using distributed sensing for the greenhouse and centralized control for the water pump) and dividing the conventional hydroponics sensing system into a fixed (environment and water quality - low cost) and a mobile unit (nutrient monitoring - high cost), the latter being shared between users and provided as a service. The fixed unit will comprise the water pump, power supply and sensor network containing basic sensors such as temperature, humidity, water ph, and the mobile unit will contain the more expensive nutrient sensors. The fixed unit status will be monitored online giving warnings and alerts for abnormal conditions. Finally, the project will optimize non-functional requirements such as power and water consumption while achieving quantity and quality of production based on system and environmental parameters such as nutrients, ambient temperature and humidity, and water pH and conductivity. This is essential since small scale hydroponics have no access to the power grid, and even if it was accessible, grid power would significantly increase production cost. The automation system will originally use simple user-defined time controls for the water pump (main component of power consumption) by a simple rule-based expert system, it will then evolve using a Fuzzy Inference Engine and in the future when enough data is available, Machine Learning. We will also use prediction techniques to determine when to use the mobile unit and replace nutrients instead of doing so empirically as is the case in current hydroponics solutions.
The above innovations will lead to acquiring new knowledge on hydroponics practices as well as further the expertise of the partners in the growing IoT and soft-computing domains of ICT, increasing the competitiveness of Cyprus and the EU in these key technology sectors. The above innovation will minimize water demand for agriculture, reduce pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, adapting agriculture to coming climate change.