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Farmbot - the robot that's like Farmville for real life

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 21 June 2016, 21:12 IST

Just a few months ago, the world stood up and took notice when SPREAD, a Japanese agricultural firm, announced plans for the world's first fully robotised farm. Set to open in 2017, SPREAD's factory farm will, at its peak, produce over 500,000 heads of lettuce a day. It's all very heady stuff.

But, unless you're in Japan, or, at the very least, have an insatiable craving for salad or even a lettuce fetish, SPREAD's technological prowess means precious little to you. For starters, it costs over 2 billion yen (roughly US $20 million) and is both technology as well as energy intensive. All of these factors mean that SPREAD's robotised plant plants are unlikely to change the agricultural game either for developing countries or individual farmers.

For robotics and automation to truly influence the agriculture sector, it needs to be scalable, affordable and minimise labour. Enter Farmbot - an open-source farming machine and software meant to help everyone become a farmer, while keeping things as simple (and far less annoying) as Farmville.

Also read - Germinator: Rise of the robotic farmers

Photo: Farmbot

The seed of an idea

Farmbot is the brainchild of Rory Aaronson. Back in 2011, while studying mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, Aaronson took an organic agriculture class. That's when he encountered an elderly guest lecturer who showed the class his own invention - a tractor that used technology to differentiate between weeds and lettuce to make thefarming process easier.

The innovation impressed Aaronson, but it also got him thinking. "I couldn't help thinking: isn't there a better way of knowing where you planted your lettuce? In some sort of stroke of genius, I realized I could accomplish the very same task in a much more simple and elegant way," wrote Aaronson on his first white paper on Farmbot.

Aaronson's solution, which was based on his mechanical engineering background, was simple, but effective. "If I put the tractor, or more specifically the tractor tooling, on fixed tracks, I could know exactly where the tooling was located in relation to the ground and the plants, much like a 3D printer or CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine," he reasoned.

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Germinator: Salvation

The culmination of his idea was Farmbot, which functionally is similar to a 3D printer. It uses a x,y,z positioning mechanism, a microprocessor, stepper motors and a compact computer to accurately map out a garden plot. It then plants seeds in a rectangular grid formation, allowing it to map out exactly where each plant is. Interchangeable tool heads then allow Farmbot to water plants and weed in between them.

What makes Farmbot extra special is that it is scalable. All one needs is a raised plot of soil around which to place the rails that form the backbone of Farmbot. The rails just need to fit your size needs and the software can be calibrated accordingly. What's more, all of this is open-source and 3D printable so you can actually make them according to your specifications.

The most amazing thing about the technology though, is its interface. Users can use a drag and drop software program to design what goes where in their plots. It's a lot like Farmville except Farmbot doesn't ask for small sums of money to do tasks that should be doable for free and the vegetables are real.

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What's more, since the software has mapped out specifically where every plant in the plot is, one can actually create specifications for each plant, and even customise actions based on the plant's age as well as the season. This means that you could potentially grow a wide range of plants in the same plot and not have to deal with the hassle of tending to each of them individually.

Not only is the tool practically DIY, but, in order to make the whole thing more easily accessible to the public, Aaronson is set to begin shipping fully functional Farmbot kits via his website. What's more, Aaronson has built up an online community around Farmbot that is constantly working to improve and expand Farmbot's already impressive set of features.

By taking the backbreaking labour out of farming, the machine could not only help small-scale farmers, but effectively usher in an era of urban gardening and farming, something that will be vital to sustaining mankind's ever-growing population.

First published: 21 June 2016, 21:12 IST