In recent decades, scientists, activists and engineers have been coming up with creative ways to tackle an impending global food crisis. We’ve seen rooftop gardens and community farm projects sprout in cities like Amsterdam and New York. We’ve also heard of initiatives which repurpose abandoned buildings, turning them into “zero emission urban food oases.” And, of course, we’ve heard about 3D printed food. But what about robots that can help you design and maintain your own gardens? We had a chance to chat with Tim Evers, who is currently a lead contributor to FarmBot - an open-source machine that is geared to revolutionize sustainable farming.
Meet Tim Evers
Tim is an automation engineer who has built a decade-long career working on industrial projects for the food industry. Chances are, if you’ve ever had cookies or milk shakes in Western Europe, they’ve been produced with his software.
Tim first heard about FarmBot on Reddit, when he encountered a white paper written by Rory Arenson, the project’s founder. Using an Arduino and Raspberry Pi, the FarmBot tool head can be precisely positioned to carry out soil preparation, seeding, watering, fertilizing, weed control, and data acquisition. The bot is designed to work like a giant 3D printer, but instead of wielding plastic extruders, its basic components are seed injectors, watering nozzles, plows and sensors. Users will be able to design garden layouts with a drag and drop web-based interface. A decision support system will also be incorporated to adjust seed spacing, water, fertilizer, and pesticide regimens drawing on soil and weather conditions; sensor data, location, and time of year.
FarmBot’s infrastructure draws on precision agriculture techniques to tend to each plant in a specific way, much like a human hand would. While similar farming technologies are already in use at an industrial scale, FarmBot is ideal for small scale farming and home production. This is what makes FarmBot truly revolutionary, it has the potential to bring precision agriculture to home gardeners, contributing to the de-centralization of food production and increasing our self-sufficiency as consumers. FarmBot is also opening up a new era in data-driven agriculture, allowing producers to optimize how each plant grows throughout its life cycle. These efficiency gains will result in a smarter use of natural resources and, therefore, increased sustainability.
“We are increasingly moving towards small scale automated manufacturing and shying away from large scale industrial production - this will be the way of the future,” says Tim. “I had thought of similar concepts in the past, so the idea caught my interest immediately. I subscribed to Rory’s newsletter to see where the project was going and shortly afterwards he sent out a call for software developers. I was one of the first hackers to jump on board. Since then, I’ve been trying to get the code and hardware working with the core group.”
Tim’s role is to develop the Raspberry Pi software which will make basic movement and watering possible. He is also tasked with adding scheduling functionality, so the bot can receive and execute commands and water plants at a certain time. He recently contacted one of our hubs to print a set of parts for his first bot prototype. The parts consisted of a Prusa 2 and a couple of feet of material that hold the container with soil in place.
“It’s way easier for me to design things on a computer than to try to make them out of wood or iron,” says Tim. “I expect that we’ll be using 3D printing and other digital fabrication technologies quite a bit to prototype brackets, seed injectors, electronics enclosures and other small components.”
Where does FarmBot stand now?
No plants have been grown with FarmBot yet, but the project has been gaining some traction following a grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation. FarmBot’s core team now consists of 8 people, including software developers, mechanical engineers, and a graphic designer. The team is currently developing a few working prototypes to experiment with. So far, they’ve managed to get some simple movement, communication and scheduling working. The next big step will be to develop a graphical user interface to control the bot. If the farmer in you is dying to try it out, check out the project’s wiki to find the necessary hardware designs and guidelines.