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How Big Data Is Driving Precision Cannabis Cultivation

A modern grow room is a precisely tuned environment designed to optimize the harvest.

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Today, ‘big data’ is an indispensable tool to improve decision-making and drive better outcomes in almost all areas of business -- from credit cards, to coffee chains, to cancer research, and beyond.

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Big data is used to maximize growth and yields in every field you can imagine. And increasingly, serious cannabis cultivators -- whose entire business is about maximizing growth and improving profits – are talking as much about ‘big data’ as they do about CBD levels, temperature, and humidity.

Related: States Are Starting to Certify Organic Cannabis Because the Feds Won't

Traditional growing methods face challenges as the industry grows.

The U.S. legal cannabis market was valued at $11.9 billion in 2018; globally the market is expected to be worth $66.3 billion by the end of 2025. New demands are driving innovation in cannabis cultivation, and new ways to leverage technology.

Traditional cultivation methods still work, of course -- humans have been cultivating plants in soil since about 9500 BC or so. But the demands now are not what they were then. There are still cultivators “walking the room” a few times a day collecting information with their eyes and hands. Some rely on a single sensor pair that measures temperature and humidity, hanging in the middle of the room, and hoping that if the conditions in the center are good, the rest of the grow room will be close enough for a good end product. If they’re gifted growers, they may supplement their sensor with spot measurements by a hand-held device, rigorously logging the data and making updates to the room’s climate settings so that they may get acceptable yields.

Still, cultivators who resist technology risk being left behind as the industry advances.

Related: These Entrepreneurs Are Letting the Sun Shine on Indoor Cannabis Cultivation

The industry shift to precision growing.

The shrinking size and cost of sensors, improvements in battery technology and networking, and the emergence of purpose-built platforms capable of managing terabytes of data are leading an industry shift to precision growing. Unless cultivators keep a half-dozen or more factors in balance in every square foot of the grow room the outcome is inescapable: costs go up, yields go down.

A state-of-the-art cultivation facility has technology arrayed everywhere to maintain a balanced, homogeneous environment. Instead of a lone sensor plugged into an outlet in the middle of the room, there’s a high density of sensors every few feet in the canopy in and around the crops collecting a steady stream of data about temperature, humidity, CO2, light levels, airflow and more. Adding soil and substrate sensors can help to measure soil temperature, fertilizer levels, and moisture.

Related: This Is How Your Cannabis Is Grown

‘Big data’

More data drives more predictability and enables faster, more cost-effective interventions when problems are found. The effective use of data enables lower operational costs and a more sustainable use of resources. That data trail also makes regulatory compliance significantly easier. Having a significant data trial with a history means that if the grow room is inspected by regulators, they can see exactly what has been done to keep it in compliance.

What’s ahead?

New tools are enabling cultivators to boost their ambitions higher still.

For the first time ever, craft growers who need to achieve a certain CBD level -- the non-intoxicating compound called cannabidiol --  have the technological tools to adjust the growing environment more precisely hour by hour, and day by day. By using a certain genetic or cultivar they can repeatedly get the expressions they really want. The cultivators who produce higher quality will find they can command higher value.

Over time, amassing a large amount of data from hundreds or thousands of growers will enable tech providers to help cultivators continuously optimize for specific environments, strains, cultivars and similar variables. Now, introduce artificial intelligence (AI), or a machine learning engine. The more data the AI ingests, the smarter it gets and the more useful the intelligence becomes to the cultivator Eventually, with time and the gathering of cultivation data from multiple crops and multiple cultivators, the industry will have  high quality, research-grade data to create effective algorithm tools for high-performance crop production.

There are the key considerations for cultivators.

 Costs are lower than most cultivators realize, and the technology is simple to deploy. The investment of time and money required to move to a precision growing environment has fallen. What once required costly consultants is now closer to turn-key.

Installing sensors and collecting data is just the beginning. Deploying sensors is the easy part. But as with all data-driven businesses, how the data is managed is critical. Look for partners who can help you collect your data in one place, and easily provide different views on a range of devices. The top technology providers can enable alerts when key indicators are out of acceptable ranges, and more.

Sustainability is smart. It’s good to be environmentally friendly, and not just because it’s a nice thing to do. The right data-driven system, coupled with AI and with the data in homogeneous environments, means you use less chemicals -- or none at all. That means lower energy cost, less waste, higher yield and easier regulatory compliance. It’s just smart business.

Big data is poised to drive big changes in the industry.  This is an exciting time to be in the cannabis business.