Nanoracks is looking to conduct experiments on seeds in space to develop a more resilient agricultural product that can bloom in the desert on Earth. (Photo by SINITAR/Shutterstock)

By 2050, current estimates suggest there will be 9.5 billion people on the planet. As the global population outgrows our current resources and production methods, radical change is needed in many areas, but perhaps most notably in agriculture.

Having started life in a garage in Texas, Nanoracks is the commercial space services provider looking at how research in space can be used to solve the challenges we face on Earth. Thanks to the innovation-friendly environment in Abu Dhabi, Nanoracks is breaking new ground, with big ambitions to revolutionise our approach to the problems of climate change, land scarcity and food security.

Looking skywards

Launched in 2009, Nanoracks is the largest commercial user of the International Space Station (ISS). “We realised we could find ways of making it easier to send experiments up there,” explains Allen Herbert, the company’s vice-president of business development and strategy. “Now we have many customers, from academia, private sector and governments, looking to utilise the features of space for their experiments.” The unique microgravity conditions at the ISS affect the behaviour of all living organisms and organic compounds, allowing researchers to make new discoveries and manufacture unique products.

“In 2015, we started working with NASA, looking at repurposing the second stage of rockets and making them into habitats in space,” Herbert continues. These “Outposts” will be agile space stations made from used parts of launch vehicles that would otherwise be burned or discarded, becoming space debris. Nanoracks’ idea to turn them into anything from manufacturing facilities to greenhouses is a more sustainable option.

Nanoracks sent the first commercial space airlock, its Bishop Airlock, to the ISS in 2020. “That is like the first commercial real estate on the space station,” Herbert explains. It broadens the services that Nanoracks can offer its customers.

To date, the company has sent over 1,200 experiments to the ISS and launched 350–400 small satellites from the station, working alongside major companies including Virgin and Blue Origin, all in the spirit of research and innovation to solve problems on Earth.

Down-to-earth benefits

On Earth, we are facing mounting issues of population growth, climate change and loss of useable land. As the planet’s conditions become more extreme, we will face more and more of the same challenges that exist in space, especially those of avoiding waste and making the most of scarce materials. “We are going to need to grow as much food as we can in a limited amount of space and resources,” Herbert explains. “It is about minimising input and maximising output.”

Research in space is an ideal way to learn how to do this. “We have been sending agriculture stuff into space for years,” Herbert says. For example, Nanoracks is looking to conduct space experiments, in which seeds are sent into space. The radiation and microgravity conditions are thought to make cellular changes to these organisms and the result is a more resilient agricultural product that can bloom in the desert.

“We are also looking at how some of the technologies that have already been developed in space can be applied here, including different types of AI software and robotics to make things more automated and efficient,” Herbert adds. “Many of the technologies that we use in vertical farming in terms of the sensors and the lighting were first developed for space. Those same types of techniques that you utilise in space can be utilised on Earth.”

Abu Dhabi is an AgTech hub

Abu Dhabi has proven to be the ideal place to develop this technology. Since the region imports 90% of its food, it is committed to finding creative, high-tech new solutions for food production and security, an attitude that is conducive to innovation.

“We started coming to the emirate in 2017, working with the Space Agency and the Khalifa University and other universities,” says Herbert. Since then, Nanoracks has led a number of projects, including student research contests. In 2019, Nanoracks sent the first palm tree into space, and it is now being studied by the United Arab Emirates University.

Nanoracks opened its office at Abu Dhabi’s global technology ecosystem, Hub71. It is now immersed within Hub71’s vibrant community of more than 100 tech start-ups building and scaling technologies from the UAE capital. In September this year, it will begin work on StarLab Oasis, a world-leading commercial space AgTech research centre in Abu Dhabi, built with support from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO).

“We look at Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a regional space hub for MEASA (Middle East, Africa and South Asia),” says Herbert. “There is an openness to innovation. They listened to us when we arrived, even though we are a small business, because they recognised the importance of what we are doing.”

“There is also an openness to partnerships,” he adds. Nanoracks has been supported by Hub71 and ADIO, through its Innovation Programme, along with universities and government agencies, especially the UAE Space Agency.

For Herbert, what is most exciting about the emirate is its global perspective and ambition. Although space is booming around the world, especially in the US, Abu Dhabi’s environment for creativity and entrepreneurship sets it apart as the place to drive the future of agriculture. “Abu Dhabi will be the agricultural hotspot for the world,” Herbert believes.

Astronomical potential

Today, Nanoracks is preparing to set up two labs: one in Abu Dhabi and the other in space. “We are bringing people from all over the world to be a part of it,” says Herbert.

The labs will have two missions. “First, to look at how we can use the harshness of space to help bloom the desert, looking at things like seeds and water delivery,” explains Herbert. “Second, for closed environment agriculture, we will look at how to utilise on Earth what we use in space, from AI to robotics to plant genomics. We believe that the technology we use will help other companies, such as vertical farming companies.”

The potential in this field is truly astronomical. “We are looking to work more with NASA on how we are going to impact agriculture on the moon and Mars,” says Herbert. “We are looking forward to the commercialisation of food production in space, and as we travel and settle in orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond, we want to be the company that provides your food.”

At the same time, the results of the research will have tangible, down-to-earth benefits. Nanoracks is pursuing new ways of producing food and coping with the climate and resource challenges that we are set to increasingly face, revolutionising agriculture as we know it. “Thanks to the technology, a great amount of the world’s sustainable and economically efficient food production will one day come from deserts and harsh environments,” Herbert predicts. All this is beginning now, on the ground in Abu Dhabi.