June 14, 2024

A vertical farming startup from the UK is taking its technology to new heights.  

The UK Space Agency has awarded Vertical Future £1.5mn to build an autonomous farm in orbit. The high-tech veggie garden will be installed on the world’s first commercial space station. 

Currently being constructed by US-based Axiom Space, the station is due to open its doors to eager astronauts in 2026.

Space stations are an ideal testing ground for growing fruit, veggies, and even pharmaceuticals in microgravity. The lessons learnt here will likely be critical to feeding hungry humans once (if?) we set up shop on the Moon or Mars.

The <3 of EU tech

The latest rumblings from the EU tech scene, a story from our wise ol’ founder Boris, and some questionable AI art. It’s free, every week, in your inbox. Sign up now!

“The further we go into space, the more we will need to produce while we’re there, be it food, biomaterials, or medicines,” Dr Jen Bromley, chief scientific officer at Vertical Future, told TNW. “Plant-growing facilities are seen as a part of the solution.”   

Headquartered in London, Vertical Future designs, manufactures, and deploys fully-robotic vertical farms. The plants are grown under LED lights in metal boxes stacked on a shelving system towering several metres high. 

Robots — capable of moving up and down and left to right — keep the crops healthy. Everything from seed treatment to harvesting is fully automated. 

Adapting the farms for space 

In space, Vertical Future’s system will need to overcome a whole new set of challenges. “The main issue is watering and feeding [the plants],” said Bromley. “In microgravity, any fluid movement needs to be carefully controlled as water doesn’t pool the same way it does on Earth.”

Vertical Future is exploring using a kind of “pillow” that will safely contain the liquid for use by the plants. This builds upon previous research at NASA where astronauts manually injected the pillows with fertirrigant (fertiliser mixed with water). The startup will now work on automating the process.