Cannabis greenhouse
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Lidar in ‘high’ demand for monitoring cannabis growth

Image credit: Dreamstime

Since its first baby-steps in the 1960s and 70s, lidar has come a long way. A company in north-west England that specialises in applying emerging technologies exhibits how it helps clients all over the globe in the area of cannabis farming.

Light detection and ranging (lidar) uses very small lasers to create an accurate 3D image of any surroundings by measuring the distance between the sensor and a target object. On its own, its use is limited. The power lies in its application within various domains to solve specific problems.

“Lidar in itself is really of no use on its own. But by combining it with artificial intelligence and machine learning, lidar becomes very powerful,” explains Pete Walker, CEO at an ‘emerging technology consultancy’ called JP74, that uses lidar in the area of cannabis farming.

Lidar is best known for its deployment in the realm of self-driving cars, but also in traffic surveillance and – more secretly – in the military, often alongside radar, camera, and GPS.

While working with specific partners in the US, JP74 was challenged with a problem from another company, Walker remembers. The opportunity to use lidar in the area of industrial hemp (or cannabis) farming offered itself on a silver platter when he was asked how to best monitor plants and workers.

Why exactly industrial hemp and medicinal cannabis? The widespread use of hemp in different product categories keeps universally thriving. Creams, lotions, drinks, food, for health and beauty, wellbeing and moisturisers, lattes, vitamins, cookies, sweets, teas, beer, ice cream, massage oils, and dog treats – all can now contain hemp, supporting global market growth.

Even its byproduct is of some value. Hemp biomass is widely used in making ropes, clothing or biomass furnaces. In Jersey, a biomass boiler is producing electricity, says Walker. As regulators open up more and more markets, medical cannabis finds its way to patients. Recently, it was Australia’s turn. In February, more than 3,100 medicinal cannabis prescriptions received approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration since the Australian Federal Government relaxed restrictions in March of 2018, according to ABC News.

As part of JP74’s so-called ‘Greenhouse project’ the firm now keeps track of plant growth and tabs on any irregularities of particular plants.

The use of lidar is versatile. Lidar can be plugged indoors – such as in greenhouses – as well as applied outdoors, says Walker. “Everything is really hidden. No one get to see any spooky 3D views. It is just nudges that goes to an app in the hands of the workers or the managers.”

LIDAR application in Cannabis greenhouse

Dreamstime

Image credit: JP74

The output of lidar – gigantic datasets – can then be mined with the firm’s proprietary AI analytics platform, which is used to crunch the numbers “locally, timely and efficiently”. For Walker, “lidar is really just another sensor”. The attached AI platform would resemble the genuine secret ingredient in the firm’s sauce of success.

There are two other arguments for using lidar over conventional options in hemp farming monitoring, explains Walker.

Cameras could be used to monitor plants as well as farm workers. “The problem with cameras is that they can only point in a single direction at one time” and would only work when made movable.  

The other argument in favour of lidar lies in its abilities to oversee workers’ productivity on a farm and in greenhouses. Lidar can do more than one thing at the time, which makes it perfect for policing the workforce: “We are not watching one [farm] worker. We can watch all the workers simultaneously”.

When lidar units are combined, they can generate a full 3D picture of the environment – both humans and plants – allowing them to record a conclusive 360° view of objects moving around.

The firm’s system would only keep the data that it necessarily needs to gather – making unwanted exploitation less likely – as opposed to cameras where footage recorded might reveal more than desired.

Lidar, says Walker, would serve as a means to also sell clients security. “Lidar sensors spot when people walk towards the crop” and – unlike cameras – it allows definition of specific remits, so that beyond a certain point, the system stops gathering data. 

One example of such would be relevant in Jersey - where a housing estate abuts on a field that is monitored via the firm’s lidar system. Cameras would disregard the housing estate and anything beyond the field – avoiding collecting superfluous data that might cause problems relating to privacy.

On farms and fields, stringent supervision of a workforce can appear creepy. On the question of whether Walker worries that his firm’s lidar supervision application could lead to Orwellian-like monitoring applications of staff, he argues that it would be the same as “installing 500 cameras and tracking every movement of employees”.

Walker denies that lidar as a monitoring technology is too intrusive. If most workers would do everything they need to do, then only the people who are not following suit will be of interest to managers, he says. “Realistically, those guys are being probably moved on, and if not, should have been moved on a while ago. We are only providing information that makes them be moved on, quicker,” he says.

While the firm uses lidar as ‘nondescript non-movable sensors in the environment, competitors mount it on drones to oversee fields from sky. Airborne lidar, for instance, exists in the domain of farming and agriculture for several years, and assists the traditional field surveying and photogrammetric approaches.

Higher Markets

At present active in the US, Canada, Jersey and soon the UK, the markets where JP74 is assisting cannabis farmers  depend on the local regulation of cannabis cultivation.

In Canada, it is legal to grow. At the end of last year, US President Donald Trump signed into law the ‘farm bill’, which covered also a provision for legalising hemp, a species of cannabis that CBD – the non-psychoactive cannabinoid of marijuana – can be extracted from but which is not psychoactive. The change in regulation has already allowed farming in America to burgeon to 40 square kilometres, Walker says.

For the future of lidar deployed in other areas, Walker anticipates that it will take a few more years before it really takes off and “becomes common”. This has to do with the price tag attached to lidar units. Costs determined the firm’s current use within the field of hemp farming. “It makes sense for the market we are working with. [For clients] it is a no-brainer. You wouldn’t want to install it in your office because of the costs”, he says.

For a single sensor – the type Walker and his team uses for cannabis farming – the price lies at the low thousands. But more sophisticated units, depending on capabilities, could quickly run into the hundreds of thousands.

Other companies such as Quebec-based company LeddarTech deploy low-cost lidar sensor solutions for a range of fixed and mobile applications.

As interest advances, Walker’s company keeps dreaming up new applications for lidar, both in farming and elsewhere. At present, it is exploring how to monitor flowers to advise the perfect timing to cut stems in order to optimise wastage. Supervision of vineyards is another option the firm is investigating.

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