Sharjah: Drones, hydroponics to boost UAE food security

Sharjah - Research also looking into aquaponics, artificial intelligence and big data

By Afkar Abdullah

Published: Fri 27 Aug 2021, 9:26 AM

A research hub is looking at AI (Artificial Intelligence), drones and big data, alongside other new-age, to help the UAE achieve its national food security vision.

The Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park) has been researching innovative technologies such as hydroponics and aquaponics and using seawater to grow food as it seeks to help the country and the region achieve food security.

"We have been harnessing technology for agricultural production and food security," said Hussain Al Mahmoudi, CEO of SRTI Park. "We have developed hydroponics, and also have a 150-square-metre aquaponics farm (combination of raising fish and cultivating plants in tanks) called Merlin Agrotunnel, that can produce over one tonne of organic vegetables and fruit every month."

Al Mahmoudi said the SRTI Park is a hub for researchers, entrepreneurs, start-ups and industry experts who develop solutions that can shape food production, not only in the UAE but also regionally and globally.

"Research and further development of farming methods agricultural technology will definitely accelerate the sector's growth. We can also use AI and big data to boost agricultural production. We can use drones to map out plants suitable on outdoor farms to save resources," he continued.

Talking about hydroponics, Al Mahmoudi said: "It involves a rather large cost in the beginning, but it significantly reduces the consumption of water – by about 70 per cent – and uses less or no fertilisers, which makes it perfect to grow food in a desert environment with less agricultural space and far less water resources."

Aquaponics, he explained, is a form of agriculture that combines raising fish in tanks with soilless plant culture (hydroponics). The nutrient-rich water from raising fish provides a natural fertiliser for the plants, and the plants help to purify the water for the fish.

Indoor farming, Al Mahmoudi said, eliminates extreme outdoor temperatures and makes particular sense in our desert environment. "We use very little water – about 90 per cent less than conventional farming – and because it is aquaponics, we also produce fresh fish along with a range of vegetables and fruits."

The water used to irrigate the fruit and vegetables is seawater, desalinated through solar energy, thus completing the development of an integrated system ensuring the sustainability of natural resources.

Sustainable food in a land-scarce environment

Al Mahmoudi said a team of botanists, agriculturists and engineers from Merlin International has been conducting research to develop soil-free vertical cultivation (farming) technology that is the ideal way to produce sustainable food in a land-scarce environment.

"This agricultural system at SRTI Park is one of the solutions to the problems of agriculture and food production. The agrotunnel can be combined into multiple units to create a commercial farm to provide fresh organic produce for multiple households daily," he said.

"The agrotunnel can work in any environment and weather condition – even in the middle of the desert. We use advanced cooling technologies that can work on solar energy and can harvest water from sea or air," he added.

Al Mahmoudi underlined: "The searing summer temperature, a desert landscape and inadequate rainfall are the main challenges to the UAE's agricultural activities. The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted concerns of global food supply chains being disrupted. But we have the technology to boost local agriculture and foster farming innovation."

He further explained: "By focusing on research and developing advanced technology for agriculture, we can definitely overcome the challenges. For instance, we can enhance the soil to have a higher water retention and allow us to have better water management."

"We can explain to local farmers how best to deal with crops and maximise their yield. We can teach them about hydroponics and aquaponics. We should also promote vertical farming to control the amount of water needed. This type of farming also uses artificial light as an alternative to sunlight."

"We want to grow more plants and learn how to grow them better. We want to invite farm owners, agri-business investors, start-ups and anyone interested in this vital sector to collaborate with SRTI Park and advance our agricultural technology," concluded Al Mahmoudi.

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