Last month I was invited by another Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow, Daniel Lombrana Gonzalez, to give a talk about my work at Medialab Prado’s Madrid Urban Laboratory – 2nd Workshop and International Symposium. I was asked to not only talk about my work with the FarmBot Project and OpenFarm, but also my Beach Wheelchair Senior Project. And for good measure, I threw in a bit about the Bike Arch. My talk is titled: Project Development for Things That Matter. I have copied it below. You can also download the slide deck here.
[Intro Slide: Black Screen]
Hi everyone, my name is Rory Aronson. I’m a mechanical engineer and social entrepreneur from California – thank you Daniel Lombrana for inviting me to the conference and the staff of Medialab-Prado for hosting me.
I’d like to talk about four projects today that have helped to define who I am and what I care about. Projects that, in my opinion, matter.
Two years ago I started my final year of college. As a mechanical engineering student, this meant taking my senior design class which works like this:
During the first week of school, about 100 companies and organizations present projects or challenges, and we (the students) are able to choose which ones are most interesting to us. By the second week, all of the students have a project and our teams of 3 to 10 people are formed. Over the year, each team designs a solution, builds it, tests it, and writes a report about the whole process, all while working closely with the project sponsor.
The project I chose was for a young girl who loved the beach and loved to swim but had a physical disability confining her to use a wheelchair. And I love Langdon’s terminology he introduced to me yesterday – this little girl was functionally diverse from most people who go to the beach, and so there was no infrastructure in place to accommodate her.
So when she was very small, her dad would put her on a piece of wood and drag her across the sand from the car to the water.
But once this girl grew up, her dad could no longer pull her across the sand and it was too embarrassing and painful for her to crawl to the water, dragging herself through the hot sand and rocks.
And so our challenge was to design and build a beach wheelchair that could not only travel over the pavement in the parking lot, but over the sand and rocks too, and even enter the water and float so that this girl could get out and go for a swim and be completely independent during her time at the beach.
And this is what my team and I came up with. This is the Sandcrawler, a wheelchair that is powered by the user with the hand cranks to promote independence and exercise. It has large balloon tires to easily travel over the sand and allow the chair to float in the water.
[Sandcrawler low seat]
The seat can raise and lower, so that transferring from the chair to the sand or into the water can be done independently.
And this is what it looked like in real life: [Beach Wheelchair Photo]
And it also fits into the back of a car.
But my experience working on this project was not so much about clever engineering or making a breakthrough in technology, it was about being inclusive, and understanding the value of creating something for someone else to make sure that they have equal access to public resources such as the beach.
It was about honoring this girl’s functional diversity and giving back an experience that she loved as a child. So I want to share a short video of the first time we launched the wheelchair into the water.
[Video: Launching into the Water]
You see the very nature of this project was to give that experience to someone who lost it. To ensure that they have an equal opportunity to thrive. This is what mattered to me, and was the reason why I chose to work on the project.
The FarmBot Project
By the end of my senior design project, I was ready to graduate from college and needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. So I spent the Summer thinking about all the different paths I could take, all of the different projects I was excited about, and most of all: what mattered the most to me.
That turned out to be agriculture. It’s the world’s most important industry – everybody eats! And agriculture is going through some growing pains as our global society changes faster than it ever has before. Populations are rising, the developing world is eating more meat, we’re running out of resources and space! In a 2012 report, the world wildlife fund states that: “Humanity must now produce more food in the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined. And we must do so sustainably.” That’s a monumental challenge that we face. And what I’ve found, is that in our race to feed the world, two major farming paradigms have come to dominate the landscape.
On one hand we have the polycrop, where multiple types of plants are in the same area, mutually benefiting each other as well as the soil. My backyard garden
And on the other end of the spectrum, stemming from the industrial and green revolutions, is the monocrop. [Monocrop Slide] Here’s a shot from the Central Valley of California. It has reduced the ecosystem down to a single plant type such that a machine, a tractor, can tend to all of these plants in the same fashion. From an automation and a mechanical efficiency standpoint, this is great – very few people growing tremendous amounts of food. However, the monocrop requires many extra inputs, often synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, just to avoid collapse. And the industrial processes used to produce these chemicals and the application of them are detrimental to the environment and the quality of the food. [black screen]
Now let me tell you a little story about how I became interested in Agriculture. About three years ago I took a class and one day, an industrial farmer came in and was so excited to tell us about his newest tractor – one that used a camera and a computer vision system to detect and destroy weeds. He went to the chalkboard and drew us this simple diagram of how it functioned. [diagram slide] Those green dots are his lettuce plants in a row. And the red X’s are the weeds. To get rid of the weeds, the tractor would drive slowly down the row with a big rotating hook tool, [advance slide] it’s pathway shown here in white. And this tool would churn up the soil, destroying the weeds by physically disrupting their roots and burying the infant plants under the soil. Now when the camera system detected a lettuce plant, [advance diagram] the hook tool “skipped a beat” passing around the lettuce plant, keeping it completely intact. And so on. [advance slide] Pretty amazing technology! Now at the time, three years ago, this technology cost half a million dollars; but it was faster, more economical, and more thorough than hiring a dozen laborers to pull the weeds out by hand every season.
Now looking at this from a backyard gardeners standpoint I thought: that’s cool! Wow! But, where is my version of this technology? Where is the low-cost, small-scale version that I could use on my raised beds or in a greenhouse to help me save time and grow more food more successfully?
And at that moment, sitting there looking at this diagram, I had an idea.
There are plenty of computer controlled machines that have been around for decades performing precision operations in let’s say an XYZ space. [CNC Router slide] This CNC router for example cuts out wood shapes very precisely.
So what if we took this concept and adapted it for growing plants, we might get something like this. [FarmBot Slide] Meet FarmBot – an automated precision farming machine.
FarmBot can plant seeds at specific locations, each plant has coordinates. And then FarmBot positions other tools very precisely in relationship to those plants in order to water them, destroy weeds around them, and even sample the soil.
Before we had my backyard polycrop – biologically efficient but very labor intensive. And we also had the monocrop of the central valley – automated, but industrially harmful.
With FarmBot, everything is automated, and because each plant is tended to individually and precisely, multiple types of plants can be grown together in the same area – a polycrop, that is automated. A third paradigm of farming, a hybrid of the other two, combining the best of both.
In fact, by setting the tractor aside and reimagining the backbone machine of food production, we open up doors to improve efficiency and push the boundary of what is possible.
With FarmBot, each plant can be spaced and watered optimally based on the plant’s variety and it’s age. Plants can be arranged not only in a row, but in denser, non-linear formations. Being computer controlled, FarmBot can run 24/7 – it never gets tired. Soil compaction is nonexistent as the weight of the machine is supported by the tracks. The farming is “smarter”, with data from the sensors and the weather report determining most of the operations. For example if it’s going to rain tomorrow, FarmBot knows how much less it should water today.
By using low-cost electronics and building techniques made popular by the maker movement, FarmBot can be manufactured in a makerspace, fablab, or even a garage such that the technology is accessible and it makes sense for me to have it in my backyard – I can hack it.
FarmBot is programmed with a graphical web based interface, like a video game, so that anybody could be a farmer no matter how little experience, time, or physical ability they have. Farmville in real life!
So about 1 year ago, I wrote a paper, describing this idea: the FarmBot technology, the vision, potential risks, and everything I had ever thought of – I wanted to share it. And to do so I published this paper freely on the Internet. I open-sourced the idea. What’s mine, is now yours too, it’s ours.
And within days of publishing this paper, engineers, programmers, gardeners, and farmers from all over the world began sharing their ideas with me. They began donating their time, money, and skills to moving the project forward – they became invested. It was recognized that not only is FarmBot a fun and interesting idea, but that the larger technical and societal changes it could bring about are powerful and transformative:
- At-home automated food production with complete control of the operation vested in the machine’s owner – set it and forget it, FarmBot will email you when the tomatoes are ripe! And you can rest assured that those tomatoes are grown to your exact specifications – you know what went in to them.
- Scalable, modular, and low-cost hardware that is hackable to be appropriate in different applications
- Perfectly optimized resource usage, timing, and spacing for every single plant grown based on weather, the local micro climate, and soil conditions
- An open-source hardware, software, and data ecosystem based on sharing and collaboration, thereby encouraging innovation
- And of course, an automated polycrop – a third paradigm of farming
Today, the project team is over 25 people strong. We have 6 prototypes around the world. Here’s some electronics in Poland. This setup is in Belgium and the first FarmBot to ever water seeds. Here’s more electronics prototyping. These guys are engineering students I work with and we’re developing a universal tool mounting system so that FarmBot can change tools automatically. Here’s a seed injector built from a small vacuum pump. This is version 4 of the gantry system that I’m currently working on. [black screen]
What we’re building is an open and accessible technology to aid everyone to grow food and to grow food for everyone. We’re exploring how a global team can come together around an open idea to help solve a big challenge. We’re using the open-source model as a mechanism for rapid prototyping and the quick dissemination of ideas and improvements to everyone.
If the technology and the model prove viable – and we think it already is, then we may be uncovering a part of the solution to one of humanity’s most pressing contemporary challenges.
Some of you might be wondering by now: Ok, FarmBot – cool machine, but how does it know what to do? Where does the knowledge of how to grow plants come from? Well, I asked that question too about a year ago, and ran into this problem:
When searching for plant growing advice online, it is common to run into the following situations:
- Advice is overly generic
- Advice is not structured, written, nor formatted well
- Advice is very specific, but not relevant to you or your garden
- There is no way to discuss or contribute new advice
So we decided that we would need to build our own database that is structured, region specific, and actually told us how to grow plants. And I figured that if we were to build such a database, it should not be exclusively used by FarmBot owners, it should be available to anyone. And that there is no better way to get a lot of data than by crowdsourcing it!
The OpenFarm Solution
So I came up with an idea called OpenFarm and it is about learning to grow anything. Similar to Wikipedia, the data is free for everyone to access and anyone can contribute content. Because people grow plants differently based on environmental conditions and growing practices, OpenFarm provides a framework for everyone to share their story, and for learners to find the best, most relevant content.
OpenFarm Growing Guides are structured stories for growing a specific plant with particular practices and environmental conditions. So in this example, we see Nancy’s Guide for growing Heirloom Tomatoes with organic practices, in a greenhouse.
The Overview to introduce the reader to the guide and provide a photo of the plant. There is also a table of contents for quickly jumping to another section.
Next is the Prerequisites section. Nancy has specified what prerequisites are required for her Guide, and based on the reader’s OpenFarm profile a “Compatibility Score” is created. In the example we see that Nancy’s guide is 84% compatible with me and my garden because most of the prerequisites have green backgrounds, indicating that they are satisfied. Others have yellow and red backgrounds, indicating that they are not fully satisfied.
If Prerequisites are met and it is the right time to grow the plant, the reader reaches the Growing Instructions which are organized by the plant’s life stages. In Nancy’s guide there are the Prep, Sow, Germination, Seedling, Juvenile, Adult, Flowering, and Fruiting stages. Within each stage Nancy specifies what things she recommends to do, and when and how to do them. Some examples:
During the flowering stage, prune 30% of budding flowers, once, 1 cm from the flower base.
During the juvenile stage, mulch 3 inches of straw at the base of the plant.
During the adult stage, water for 2 minutes per plant, with a hose, 6 inches from the rootstalk, in the early morning or late afternoon.
During the fruiting stage, if you have a problem with aphids, mist the entire plant with an organic insecticide of your choosing.
The last section is the Forum where the community can discuss the Guide, ask questions, post photos, and share additional advice. Forum posts can be tagged, searched, filtered, and given the “Green Thumbs Up.”
Searching for Guides
Individual Guides will not be relevant for everyone, therefore an unlimited number of them can be created for each plant. Some will be similar while others may be tailored to very different environmental conditions, plant varieties, or growing styles.
When users search the OpenFarm database they will be shown a list of all Guides that match their search term, sorted by compatibility and rating.
And then on the backend, we have an API so that other software like the FarmBot software or a mobile app, can access the data in bulk.
So this is exciting for me – to help build something that is globally relevant and that we think will help a lot of people. So to help the development along, we asked the world for help by running a Kickstarter campaign. And it was very successful! So we had a little over 1,600 people support us over 30 days and raised over $24,000.
So clearly, OpenFarm, and the sharing of plant growing advice in a free and open way, matters to a lot of people.
The Bike Arch
The last project I want to share with you is one that is very close to my heart. It is a project coming from my whimsical, creative side.
So, I love bikes, and I also love creating things. Combining these two passions, one day I took some old bikes and began welding them together. I laid 7 of them out on in my backyard and began cutting, bending, and grinding them to fit. I strengthened their joints and melded them into one arching structure. Then I moved the structure to the front yard and welded it in place as an entranceway to my home. And we painted it.
And what had started as just a fun, creative, spur-of-the-moment project proceeded to become a landmark in my neighborhood [velonotte picture]. People flocked to it as a destination, rang their bells as they rode by on their daily commute, kids would come up and spin the arch’s wheels and laugh. It became known as the Bike Arch – a symbol of cycling advocacy, creativity, and community.
My home was no longer just another house on the block, it was a place, and it mattered.
I choose to work on projects that matter to me because my work defines who I am. And I think we can all make that choice in our lives: to work on things that matter to us. It might take some time to transition, you might not know what matters to you yet, but if you dig deep down and find something that makes you happy and gets you excited, go and make it happen.
I believe in all of us and the power our projects have to make a difference.