Reflections of the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship

As part of my exit from the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship, I was asked for my feedback of the Foundation, its processes, and its communication. I feel compelled to share this here perhaps for future Fellows, but more so as a reflection for myself of what it was like to work with such an innovative, forward thinking, and yet somewhat young Foundation. Some of this feedback I can relate to my own businesses as well. I copied this nearly verbatim from my email:

The Amazing

The fellowship model is incredible. I feel wonderfully supported and encouraged by the other fellows, and inspired everyday by what each person is doing. Catching up with everyone during the weekly text chat ‘fellow-ups’ is awesome, especially to see all the positive encouragement from others, and have an abundant offering of resources, advice, and connections always available.

Having so many open advocates and movers and shakers under one roof is something very special and powerful. I feel that. Its good for the spirit to see so many others fighting the same fight but in such vastly different ways. I feel privileged to be a part of it and know that I will continue to gain a lot of value from being a Shuttleworth Fellow.

Meeting face-to-face for bi-annual Gatherings was very special to me and delineates the Fellowship from other programs. I love the emphasis on people, not projects, and how that carries over into other operations of the Foundation. My first Gathering I didn’t know what to expect. It was so soon into my fellowship that I was scared and intimidated. All of that went away as soon as I stepped into the conference room. The feeling of community, the sharing of common goals, and the genuine excitement in the room combined with the incredible openness of everyone allowed me to feel right at home. Post gathering, I felt a much stronger sense of camaraderie during the fellow-ups. All of this was strengthened during my second gathering, and its incredible that I can continue joining for Gatherings to come.

The autonomy and minimal bureaucracy and reporting was very nice. The quarterly updates were reasonable to do, and the bi-monthly check-ins + weekly fellow-ups was a winning combination to stay connected.

The Foundation staff is amazing. Yes, you! You are amazing – honest! I’m never going to forget having drinks on an island in the Mediterranean, and going swimming in our underwear, and sharing a meal down the Danube, and laughing together at Gunner’s amazingness, and wearing the same shoes as you all, and being inspired and fired up about the open future. So thank you for being the awesome people that you are, and sharing that with me!

IMG_20141016_181257

A Mediterranean cruise with the Foundation at the end of the Malta Gathering – October 2014

The Mediocre

It seems that the Foundation is growing fast and can’t support the Fellows to the best extent it could. Communication was sometimes sluggish, and was often postponed or cancelled. I understand with some staff members leaving that there may be a shortage contributing to this, and that there is only one person who regularly interfaces with the fellows – a lot for one person’s plate! I think that to maintain the more personal and involved role that makes the Foundation so special, more staff need to be in place before expanding the number of active Fellows.

I was somewhat struck by the disproportionate gender ratio of the Fellows. Perhaps this is an issue of a disproportionate number of women applying. I think it would be great to actively work to close this gap.

After my re-application was not accepted, I lost a little faith in the ‘people not projects’ mantra. It seems there was/is disappointment and disinterest in how much of my time I focus on OpenFarm over FarmBot. Perhaps the project *is* more important to the Foundation than admitted, in which case, I think that should be owned up to and communicated. Or perhaps I was/am not as rockstar of a person as the Foundation desires, and my performance wasn’t up to par. If that was/is the case, I would have liked to hear it straight. Apologies for speculating to what I imagine is a very complex decision and situation.

The Terrible

I’ve been very frustrated and disappointed with the lack of communication during my last 2 months of Fellowship. Its been so absent that I’ve felt ignored and have been wondering if I did something wrong! It sounds like an issue of being short staffed on the Foundation’s side, which I think can and should be remedied as soon as possible.

La Tortuga

One of my 2015 New Year’s Resolutions is to Have More Adventures. So to facilitate this, I was thinking about buying a vehicle worthy of adventures. At first I was thinking something like a Honda Element, but then when Chad sent me a Craigslist link for a 1983 Toyota RV, I jumped on the opportunity. It was located out in Sea Canyon, was listed for only $2,000, and had a paltry 58,000 miles on it! A steal if I ever saw one. So, I ended up buying it! Her name is La Tortuga.

 

When we brought it home we grabbed all the housemates (most who had no idea we had even gone to look at an RV, let alone buy one. We piled everyone in and rode around downtown, picking up all of our friends at the different cafes. It was a grand time! Now, let’s go have more adventures!

 

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Welcome to the Open-Source Future

A common misconception I have heard when I tell people about the FarmBot Project is that being open-source rules out the possibility of making money. Plain and simple, that is absolutely not true. In my opinion, being open-source is the unique facet that is even allowing me to start a company and movement around FarmBot. There is no way I would have been able to attract a team or get the financial backing I needed by working in a proprietary manner – the barrier to entry would have been too high.

Longer term than the startup phase, there are plenty of ways to monetize an open-source project. I believe that there is always value that can be added (and sold) on top of a free and open-source project. I’ll give just a two examples that pertain to this company:

  1. Software as a service – Not very many people want (or have the technical ability) to setup and maintain their own instance of the FarmBot web app. Instead, they will opt to pay a small monthly fee for hosted service for the value of convenience, saved time, the latest features, and support.
  2. Hardware kits – Sure, anyone can look at a FarmBot’s bill of materials and buy all of the parts themselves from 50 different places on the Internet. But most people just want to buy one thing from one place with the assurance that everything needed will be in the box with a nice instruction manual and the backing of a company’s support. Again, they will be paying for the value of convenience, saved time, and support. Additionally, economies of scale may allow the company to produce the final product at a lower cost and higher quality than possible for an individual to do so. So add in the value of saving money and getting something of higher quality.

It’s clear to me that open-source can be very profitable, even lucrative, if there is a viable business plan of providing value added service or product on top of the open-source base.

In fact, current trends are showing that open-source is becoming a necessary component to the business model; that in order to compete in the marketplace, a company must make at least some of their product or service open-source. Otherwise, consumers will want nothing to do with it because some value will be missing (such as data freedom, hackability, or a price of $0) that an open-source alternative may offer.

Open-source is quickly becoming the gold standard that consumers demand.

As open-source ideals become more prominent in mainstream society, they will infiltrate all disciplines and cause radical disruption of all industries – there is no going back and no stopping it from happening. Once there is open-source software that fulfills the same function as the proprietary version, what developer would want to go back? Once there is a government that prioritizes transparency, what else would citizens accept? When there is a currency that allows us to use our money in the way we want to, or a social network that gives us true ownership of our data, or a transportation system that can connect the world, or an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, or a cell phone open to customization, or a free resource that let’s us know exactly how to grow our food, or a company that empowers us to repair their products, or frameworks for taking care of our planet’s natural resources, or a school that adopts open educational resources, or a technology that let’s us make anything we can dream of, who would ever want anything else? Out with the old and in with the new! Proprietary is so last century, welcome to the open-source future!

Thanks

A week ago my friends, family, and a few others came together to surprise me with a birthday gift to bring back The Bike Arch. On the surface the gift is a bunch of money – $1,303 as of this post. But infinitely more important than that is the comments, social shares, campaign description, secret scheming, fliers, love, and the will that went into making this happen…an incredible amount of thoughtfulness and support from the people I’m so fortunate to have in my life. Today I am thankful for all of you – everyone, for being in my life, for the support, the love, and for what is to come. I can’t wait to bring back The Bike Arch with all of you, 880 Upham was never the same without it!

Extra love and thanks to one of my best friends Myles Wittman for putting this together: http://www.gofundme.com/hfbsn8

REVIVE THE UPHAM ST. BIKE ARCH  by Myles Wittman   GoFundMe

Projects That Matter

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

[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.

Beach Wheelchair

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.

[Sandcrawler rendering]

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

, here it is a few months ago, falls into this category. There’s fruit trees, sunflowers, broccoli, kale, grapes. It’s an ecosystem at work and it doesn’t require any added fertilizers or pesticides. It’s biologically efficient. However, the polycrop is extremely labor intensive. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to make time consistently to tend to this garden, and on a commercial scale, less and less people want to do manual labor as a profession.

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.

Let’s collaborate, let’s build FarmBot together. Because a challenge as large as reinventing food production needs a global team to pitch in and make it happen.

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.

OpenFarm

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.

Following the Prerequisites section is the Timeline, allowing the reader to quickly see if it is the right time of year for them to grow the plant.

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.

So I share this project as an example that sometimes the things that matter most to you can make a big impact. That if something matters to you, it will matter to your friends, and your community too. That projects do not have to have clearly defined goals in mind, because sometimes just the feeling that something matters, is enough to make it matter.

Conclusion

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.

Thank you

Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship Year 1 Application

As the November 1 deadline approaches for applying/re-applying for the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship, I am looking back on the application that I sent in nearly 1 year ago allowing me to start a fellowship back in March. What an amazing opportunity this has been for me so far (full post coming when the year is up in March of 2015), and I can’t wait to submit my re-application by the end of this month – of which I will be posting openly here on the blog!

In the spirit of living in the open, here is my application from last year (minus letters of recommendation). Though the application has changed since then, I hope prospective future fellows can still learn from this. Feel free to email me with any questions!

[vc_video link=’https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6aSElNmVUU’]

 

Fellowship Application Form

Applicant name: Rory Aronson

Project name: FarmBot

Part 1: Essay questions

Please provide responses to the essay questions below. The responses to the questions should not exceed 2 typed pages in total. Please think about how your idea relates to technology, knowledge and learning and how your idea relates to openness when answering each section.

  • Describe the world as it is. (A description of the status quo and context in which you will be working) 
  • What change do you want to make? (A description of what you want to change about the status quo, in the world, your personal vision for this area) 
  • What do you want to explore? (A description of the innovations or questions you would like to explore during the fellowship year) 
  • What are you going to do to get there? (A description of what you actually plan to do during the year) 

The food production and distribution system is unsustainable, closed-source, and in peril. Industrial, mechanized monocrop food production relies on subsidies and petrochemicals to function, destroys the topsoil, and produces poor quality food. Additionally, the model is optimized for large-scales, centralized production, and heavy distribution, making the communities it serves more dependent and less in control. Small-scale, polycrop food production is the opposite, but requires massive amounts of expensive labor, a job that increasing numbers of people do not want. Lastly, gardening at home requires time, knowledge, and expertise to be successful, prerequisites which lead many to not even try.

A solution is needed that brings mechanized food production to the small-scale polycrop in an affordable, accessible, and open manner. Such a solution would allow healthy food to be grown affordably and sustainably in a distributed, local food production system. Making the solution open and accessible, such that the average person may afford, understand, implement, and operate the system will be key to system resiliency and mass appeal. Moreover, allowing, encouraging, and supporting system modification by the users and providing channels for sharing improvements will allow the best of everyone’s knowledge to benefit all.

FarmBot is my solution to the challenge. FarmBot is an open-source and scalable automated precision farming machine and software package. You may think of the hardware as a giant 3D printer, but instead of wielding a plastic extruder, its tools are seed injectors, watering nozzles, plows, sensors, and more. FarmBot is the first hardware to mechanize and automate a polycrop, and it does so by tending to each plant individually and in a precise manner. This means that every operation (and therefore the system as a whole) can be optimized in areas such as water, fertilizer, and pesticide usage, crop rotations, complimentary intercropping, attraction of beneficial insects, etc. In addition, outfitting the machine with sensors will allow for each operation to be completed in a data-driven and “smart” manner, further optimizing the system efficiency. Other benefits include complete computer control, 24/7 possible operation, the elimination of soil compaction, and greater possible plant density.

The FarmBot software is an open-source web-based software as a service solution allowing the user to graphically design their farm or garden layout, analyze data, and upload the generated numerical control code to their machine. A decision support system will aid the user in creating smarter decisions for their food production operation, enabling greater yields with less inputs. The interface will be designed for the lay person, allowing anyone with an Internet connection and a basic understanding of web apps to be able to use the hardware.

Complimenting the FarmBot software is OpenFarm, a free and open database for farming and gardening knowledge. Example data includes proper seed spacing, watering regimens, recommended soil compositions, etc for every soil type, climate zone, and time of year. This database will aid FarmBot users while they are designing their farm or garden, but also serve as a standalone service for other applications and users to access the data. OpenFarm may one day be described as the Wikipedia or Freebase for farming and gardening.

During the fellowship year, I plan to explore the following areas of the project. First, I want to find out at which scales the FarmBot hardware works best and is cost effective. I plan to build many different prototypes to explore different designs, materials, and scales. From there, I will begin optimizing the hardware through simplification, design for manufacturing, design for maintainability, and further iteration. All of the work will be documented on the project wiki so that others may build off of my work and collaborate on the designs.

Second, I will guide the software development team to bring the various code bases to working order, ensuring that the end products are user friendly, open and understandable, and fulfill the necessary design specifications and desired functionality.

Lastly, I will assemble a team of experts to add an initial round of plant data to OpenFarm, later spreading word to the public about the platform through targeted advertising efforts and publicity.

Part 2: Background information

Please provide responses to the background information questions and demographic data below. The responses to the questions should not exceed 2 typed pages in total. Some of the questions may not be applicable to your circumstances. If that is the case please indicate that.

  • Have you started implementation of the idea? If so, please provide details on organisational structure, life cycle and progress. 
  • How have you funded your initiative in the past? 
  • Who are your current or potential key partners? 
  • Do you intend to implement the idea as a for-profit or not-for-profit initiative in the future? 
  • Where will you be based during a potential fellowship? 
  • Do you have an online presence? Please provide links. 
  • Does the idea/project have an online presence? Please provide links. 
  • How did you hear about the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship Programme? 

 

I began implementation of the project by first writing a 53-page white paper describing the FarmBot technology and vision, as well as design details for an initial prototype. I published the paper in September, 2013 and have since been contacted bmy many interested people, raised a small amount of donated funds, gained an online following, and been interviewed several times. With my own money and the donations received, I have purchased materials for the initial prototype and began construction in my backyard which can be seen in my video.

Hardware collaboration is primarily done through the project wiki, consisting of the documentation and sharing of both designs and implementation. I have been slowly assembling a team of software developers from around the world to write the various code bases, with GitHub serving as our code repository and a Google Group for the primary communication channel. Additionally, I communicate directly with most of the developers through email correspondence, phone, and video calls.

Our online following is growing each day thanks in part to my continued posting and sharing of progress on all of the major social media platforms. We currently have over 500 followers between the social media profiles and the email newsletter.

Moving forward, I foresee my key partners being related project groups, the local MakerSpace, the local city farm and farmers, the student body and faculty at my local university, and the open-source community at large. The collaborative efforts from others are vital to continuing forward with the software, building, testing, and improving the hardware, creating the data, and documenting and sharing everything. These partners will provide me with the tools, hands, smarts, connections, and other resources needed to make this project a reality.

Once the technology progresses to a viable and fully functioning system, I envision creating a for-profit company that will utilize the open-source foundation, add the value of putting all of the materials into one box as a kit, and selling those kits with a guarantee to function and customer support. Meanwhile, all developmental improvements stemming from the business will still be documented and shared openly. The for-profit model will motivate more innovation from within the company and ultimately get the FarmBot technology into more people’s hands, bringing us closer to the vision. Additionally, the company will be open to fair competition from others because everyone will have equal free access to the base technology.

Part 3: Demographic Data

The Foundation collects demographics that are used to compile aggregate data for public reporting purposes. Your individual specific data is not made public and unless you are selected for a Fellowship will be deleted once reporting for an application cycle has been completed.

  • Gender 
  • Age 
  • Nationalities 

 

I discovered the Shuttleworth Foundation while browsing the Open Source Ecology wiki. I am a 22 year old male of Mexican and American descent with a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, California. You can find out more about me through my blog, online resume, and social media profiles all accessible from http://www.roryaronson.com. I intend to remain based in San Luis Obispo during the fellowship as I have a great community and resource pool here, as well as an optimal climate for test growing many different plants.

To see more about FarmBot online, visit http://go.FarmBot.it. From here, you can find the white paper, blog, and the project wiki. From the wiki, you can find all of the social media profiles and our GitHub organization. Thank you for providing this opportunity and taking the time to read my application!

OpenFarm – Learn to Grow Anything

I just launched a Kickstarter campaign for OpenFarm, a free an open database for farming and gardening knowledge! OpenFarm came out of the need for FarmBot to access structured, detailed data for how to grow a plant in a specific environment with specific growing practices.

We found that this data did not yet exist and figured the best way to obtain it was with a website where anyone could contribute the data, much like Wikipedia. We then figured that if we were to build such a database, it should not be exclusive for FarmBot users, but accessible by anyone. Thus, OpenFarm was spun off as an independent project.

Check out the campaign video below, and help fund this project!

Heading in the Right Direction

When I graduated 8 months ago, I had no idea what I was going to do for a job or what field of work I wanted to go into. But perhaps the one thing I was certain of, was that I wanted to pioneer my own path, that I would do things on my own accord, driven by my intrinsic desires, motivations, and values.

To ensure I embarked on my journey in the right direction, I opted to take my time in surveying both my own thoughts and the landscape of opportunities. I spent the first half of my Summer thinking and reading. Roommates may remember this period as a time that I didn’t leave the couch, that I often passed up hanging out with friends in favor of reading Wikipedia and thinking, alone, for hours, sometimes through to the morning. I was gathering and formulating what makes me tick, what is meaningful in my life, the goals I have for myself, and the change that I want to make in the world.

I decided I fit the description of a social entrepreneur, and that I intend to use business, engineering, and design to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face today. With my newfound framework and topics as broad as agriculture, transportation, and governance piquing my interest, the time was right to move forward. I had a direction.

Already having had a loose idea to help fix agriculture, I made further developing that idea my primary focus. For the remainder of Summer, I formulated into a 50 page paper: FarmBot – Humanity’s open-source automated precision farming machine. The paper details everything: from the initial idea, to the vision, to a prototype design, to the business plan and more. But most importantly, it calls for help. I recognize that nobody can solve these challenges alone, and that I want to collaborate, not compete. What’s mine is yours, let’s do this together.

I self-published the paper on September 20th and sent it out to strategic communities on the Internet. Before long, I had assembled an international and interdisciplinary team of people with a shared interest and motivation in the project. We began work. Now 5 months after publishing, the team is about 20 people strong and we’re moving forward quickly on all fronts.

But what I’m most excited to say in this post, is that this Saturday marks the first day of FarmBot being my full-time job! I’ve been accepted into a Fellowship program by the Shuttleworth Foundation, providing me with $125,000 for project funds, my salary, and travel expenses. I will be working under this grant for a full year and I hope to bring FarmBot to market in that time. In May, I will be traveling to Budapest to meet the other fellows and the foundation staff for a week long conference. After, I plan to see more of Europe by bicycle, with a focus on meeting some of the other project contributors. While at home, I will be basing my operations out of SLO MakerSpace, and I’m incredibly stoked to transition my role there from manager to maker.

The times are exciting, the road is long, but I think I’m heading in the right direction!