Early man has farmed the land for the past 20,000 years. Humans have transformed the land and grown many different plants, allowing civilization to flourish from farming communities into cities.
Farming is one of the oldest practices in human history. Image courtesy of Crystalinks.
Millennia later, farming has gotten some incredibly high-tech advances. However, it still requires a large amount of human interaction and oversight.
But the FarmBot team may be changing that. Using CNC technology, generic modules, and some clever programming, they've designed a system that automatically grows vegetables of your choosing.
This device can plant seeds, remove weeds, water plants, and even help to regulate soil conditions so that your veggies are just right. The FarmBot can also be taken off-grid with solar panels and water collection system so that the environmental impact of electrical use is negated.
FarmBot in action! Image courtesy of FarmBot.
The FarmBot is designed to be customizable and accessible to the maker community. Its design is based on generic devices such as:
Here at AllAboutCircuits, we have interviewed the creative team behind this innovative blend of technology and machinery to get a better understanding of what FarmBot really means for the future of farming.
Q & A with Rory Aronson, Creative Director for FarmBot
AAC : Was there ever a Eureka moment for FarmBot or was it an idea that evolved over time? What was that process like?
FB: The Eureka moment was when I realized that a typical CNC machine (3D printer, CNC router, laser cutter, etc.) could be adapted to growing food in a precise, completely computer-controlled manner at a relatively small scale. Once that idea was validated as feasible, the rest of the hardware and software developed over time while I wrote the initial whitepaper.
AAC : What was the biggest obstacle you faced in designing FarmBot?
FB: Our biggest challenge is bringing the cost down while maintaining hackability of the system. It's easy to make an inexpensive product that does a specific function; it's hard to make an inexpensive platform that has the potential to do a lot of things.
AAC : Now for some planting-related questions! How does the CNC heat cope with different seed sizes? For example, a marrow seed is very large as compared to a carrot seed.
FB: We're using a vacuum-based planting system that suction-holds seeds at the end of a precision 3D printed tip. This means that with sufficient vacuum power we can have a very small orifice (smaller than the smallest seed) and still be able to hold very large seeds as well.
AAC : How does FarmBot determine the difference between a weed sapling and a wanted sapling?
- What about large radii plants?
- For maximum yield is this spacing too large?
FB : Initially, we simply detect all saplings and then whitelist any that we intentionally planted and blacklist everything else. Later in the garden's life cycle (when plants are larger) it will be more difficult to remove weeds without damaging our plants because the weeds may be within a "no-touch" zone. But as long as we restrict watering to our plants' root zones rather than entire growing areas, we should minimize weed growth.
Additionally, if a weed does pop up late into the garden cycle, it will not be able to compete and turn into a problem by the time harvest rolls around and all plants are destroyed. Eventually, we hope to develop software that can more intelligently detect weeds within the "no-touch" zone.
FarmBot selectively watering plants. Image courtesy of FarmBot.
AAC : Can seed placement be fully customized?
FB : Yes, seeds can be placed in any pattern and density desired by the user.
AAC : How does FarmBot cope with acid/alkali soil plant types?
FB : By recommending companion plantings and monitoring soil conditions over time.
AAC : Does the software warn about issues such as nutrition deficiency? Are there any other interesting issues that it can detect?
FB : At this time, no. But over time as FarmBot gets equipped with more sensors and more data models for growing crops, we will be able to suggest when and where to plant things. The eventual goal is a completely automated garden that can operate season after season with little other human input.
AAC : What kind of impact do you think FarmBot will have on produce prices?
FB : FarmBot-grown veggies are 30% more affordable when amortizing the machine cost over 5 years. After the machine is paid for, the cost of FarmBot veggies is a small fraction of those bought in the store. Over time, this competition will bring prices down across the board, especially as more people use FarmBot.
Don't know about you, but that looks darn tasty! Image courtesy of FarmBot.
AAC : What are some things that FarmBot excels at that human farmers struggle with? Are there some things that humans still do better than FarmBot?
FB : FarmBot is very diligent where humans are not. FarmBot is also very precise where humans are not.
A great case of this is a planting experiment, where you plant 100 plants and take care of each one slightly differently (change water amount by 2% per plant, for example). FarmBot can take care of these plants accordingly without thinking twice about it and without losing accuracy of the experiment. A human would mess up water quantities and get very bored of portioning out water for each plant every single day.
Harvesting is something that humans will be better at for a long time to come. Each type of crop needs to be harvested in unique ways, using unique tools and techniques. This will be difficult for FarmBot to do and will be relatively expensive compared to human labour.
The Future of FarmBot
For the average person’s back garden to the rolling hills in Yorkshire, FarmBot's future generations could be growing all manner of fresh organic vegetables. As an avid gardener, myself, with an interest in CNC machining, I can tell you that FarmBot will open the doors to an incredible future where technology can help us feed an ever-growing world population.