A new research centre in Abu Dhabi will use the UAE desert as a testing ground to explore how space technology can help food production thrive in challenging climates – on Earth and beyond.
US-based firm Nanoracks, which specialises in launching small payloads such as mini and cube satellites, will establish a commercial space research centre called StarLab Oasis in the capital.
The company, which opened an office in Abu Dhabi’s Hub71 in 2019, has received funding from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office for the programme.
Researchers will look into ways of producing food on Mars as well as in areas, such as the Emirates, where scant rainfall is an obstacle to thriving agriculture.
“In the UAE, we really saw how space can be applied to what the issues are in the region, and one of them is food security,” Allen Herbert, vice president of business development and strategy at Nanoracks, told The National.
“Many people don’t realise that the vertical farming industry initially started almost 30 years ago and some of that technology came from Nasa because they were trying to figure out how we could sustain people in space for long durations and on other planets.
“Now, we’re launching a company called StarLab Oasis. What we’ll be focusing on is how we can utilise space technology and do even more research to impact food security on Earth, as well as how technologies on Earth can be used in space.”
High-tech operations to commence in 2022
An international team of scientists and engineers will work at the centre, which is expected to begin operations next year.
The UAE imports most of its food, but the country is working on ways to become self-sufficient.
Under its food security strategy, scientists have been using various agricultural methods to grow crops, such as rice, in the desert and in controlled environments.
Mr Herbert believes that space-based technology that already exists, and that can be further improved, could help advance those methods.
“For example, there are sensors that have been developed that monitor plant growth,” he said.
“You could also use artificial intelligence and have a lot of different data to maximise plant growth in limited space. Using AI, you could also look at the genomics of the plant, how it can survive, maximise plant genomics to grow in limited space with little sun in a certain strange environment.”
Scientists with the programme will use the UAE desert to carry out experiments.
Mr Herbert said they are looking at “greening of the desert” through advanced agricultural techniques, while using enhanced technology for agriculture in enclosed environments.
“When you take seeds up into space and expose them to minimum gravity, minimum energy, and even radiation, and then you bring them down, the harshest seeds will survive.
“Those seeds can be used to grow [crops] in the desert. Also, different techniques, in terms of energy and water, can be used in a desert environment.”
UAE investing in advanced food security methods
Nanoracks will be announcing more details on the project next week during the National Space Symposium in Colorado, being held from August 23 to 26.
Adio has invested Dh152 million ($41.4m) in three companies – Nanoracks, Pure Harvest Smart Farms and FreshToHome – as part of its AgTech Incentive Programme that focuses on land, sea and space projects to achieve food security.
Tariq Bin Hendi, director general of Adio, said Abu Dhabi was pressing ahead with its mission to turn the desert green and solve long-term global food security challenges.
“We have created an environment where innovative ideas can flourish and this has enabled the rapid expansion of our AgTech sector,” he said.
“Innovations from the companies we partnered with earlier this year are already propelling the growth of Abu Dhabi’s 24,000 farms. Partnering with Pure Harvest, FreshToHome and Nanoracks adds a realm of new capabilities to the ecosystem across land, sea and space.
“We are driving innovation across the entire agriculture value chain and this is producing a compounding effect that is benefiting farmers, innovators and companies in our region and beyond.”