AEssenseGrows has introduced the latest evolution of its automated, aeroponic cultivation system, the AEtrium Double Deck, which the company projects will double the already-impressive yields of its predecessor.
The Double Deck is capable of producing 2 pounds per square foot per year at a 30-cents-per-gram cost of production, according to Phil Gibson, the company’s vice president of marketing. It also comes with drastic reductions in water and nutrient use compared to growing in soil.
Gibson says even the largest publicly traded cannabis producers in Canada are publishing production costs of $2 to $3 per gram in their financial statements.
“This really allows people to compete at a much more aggressive level, or compete at the same level and make a lot more money,” he says.
The Double Deck system incorporates all the necessary CO2 injection, irrigation, nutrition, air flow, lighting and dehumidification and is controlled by its state-of-the-art Guardian Grow Manager software that allows a cultivation program to easily be deployed from room to room or facility to facility.
The fully automated AEtrium system doesn’t remove the grower from the equation, but it does change that person’s role. Instead of measuring and correcting pH levels, turning lights on and off and moving buckets of soil, growers are able to concentrate on the health of the plants and fine-tuning the grow recipe for the perfect crop. It allows them to spend more time on observation and support, rather than keeping a facility operating.
“They can immediately see any sort of a pest management infestation,” Gibson says. “They’re able to then focus on quality, not labor operations. Productivity wise, they go from managing 30 to 40 lights per operator to 120 lights.”
It’s also a benefit in terms of managing employees; every function is logged and tracked, so there’s no wondering if an employee completed a task they were assigned and no problems associated with over-watering.
“The automation piece is to die for,” Gibson says. During a holiday in 2018, the company actually shut down its facility for about two weeks, allowing the system to run without staff oversight for 17 days.
“All we did was come back to bigger plants,” Gibson says. “Nothing went wrong.”
In addition to mechanical upgrades and a new cantilever system for easier operation, one of the major upgrades for the newest AEtrium model is the lighting.
While the single-layer system can be paired with any manufacturer’s lights, the Double Deck was specifically designed to work in conjunction with the AEssenseGrows AErix lights — an ultra-thin, high-output, dimmable LED fixture that enables vertical growing.
The configuration of stacked aeroponic tubs means the lights and other electrical elements are located underneath water, requiring a wet-rated light that can withstand the possibility of getting splashed with water.
“That UL certification process is significant,” Gibson says.
AEssenseGrows works with companies all over the world in both the fresh produce business and cannabis cultivation, though the United States and Canada are its primary markets. Currently, Gibson says the company has more clients using AEssenseGrows systems in the U.S., but they tend to be smaller in scale than their Canadian counterparts.
“It’s not the craft cannabis, small-scale business anymore,” Gibson says. “People are talking about 100,000, 200,000 square feet of cultivation.”
But while the company projects huge benefits in efficiency, Gibson admits the system’s upfront cost might make it difficult for growers to come up with the capital expense, particularly without access to traditional banking services and loans.
“It takes a big chunk of money to buy my system for a big facility,” he says.
But Gibson and his team believe the indoor horticulture industry will continue to advance rapidly and naturally toward higher levels of production. They often reference the theory known as Cuello’s Law — a premise set forth by University of Arizona professor Joel Cuello — that crop productivity will double every four to five years. The concept builds upon Moore’s Law that predicted computer processing speeds would increase rapidly, while the cost of that power would decrease.
“We are proving out Cuello’s Law and accelerating the process,” Gibson says.