In the spirit of the collaborative economy and with a view to promoting sustainable, efficient food production, the FarmBot project offers a basis for developing precision farming equipment in open source.

FarmBot takes Farmville model for precision farming in open source

The world’s population is forecast to grow from 7 to 9 billion people by 2050. According to a report published last year by the World Resources Institute, a US think tank which specializes in environmental issues, agriculture worldwide will have to increase production by about 60% if it is to meet the planet’s need for food. The challenge is all the greater given that some researchers expect there to be shortages of water, fuel, fertilizer, and arable land in the coming years. One of the solutions, which can also help to drive a more sustainable approach to farming, is known as ‘precision agriculture’. Precision farmers use hi-tech equipment such as self-steering tractors and aerial drones in order to ensure more efficient use of water, fertilizer and other resources. However, given the cost of such equipment, only industrial farms can generally afford to use it. Now however, mechanical engineer Rory Landon Aronson has set out to bring precision techniques within reach of small-scale growers, linking up agriculture with modern technology and open data. His open source FarmBot project is intended to ensure that anybody can draw on the concept and customize the hardware.

Precision farming accessible via open source

The Farmbot concept is about creating customized farm machinery using Internet-based open source software which can be easily modified and added to. Users can design their farm graphically on the platform and download the digital specifications for building appropriate equipment. The agricultural robot will be programmed to know the exact layout of the field, the position of the crops and will be able to carry out tasks such as planting and watering. The FarmBot team are about to finalize their first hardware prototype, called FarmBot Genesis. Genesis is designed to be a flexible foundation for experimentation, prototyping and hacking by manufacturers or amateurs. The essential facets of the design are simplicity, manufacturability, scalability, and ‘hackability’. It comprises an Arduino micro-controller and two basic tools – a seed injector and a watering nozzle – and it comes in various sizes to cover surface areas from one square meter to fifty square meters. Rory Landon Aronson is encouraging everyone to carry out experiments in order to develop new precision agriculture software and hardware solutions using open source.

Evolving framework, gamified interface

Along the lines of 3D printers and computer-controlled machine tools, FarmBot works within an evolving framework. The agricultural robot can be assembled in various ways to use sensors, spraying nozzles and/or seed injectors. The FarmBot team are about to launch a crowdfunding campaign soon. They then intend to work on software that will include a ‘gamified’ interface for managing a garden, field or crop. Aronson compares this interface to the popular online game Farmville. The entrepreneur is planning to create hardware kits to enable growers with all sizes of farms or land areas to create new FarmBot-based solutions. “I’m hoping our prototype will cost under $1,000,” he says, explaining that “the first model will be targeted at the ‘geeky gardener,’ someone who has always wanted a garden but maybe they don’t water it enough and they want a geeky toy to help them.” Basically however, his aim is to establish a community of people who make hardware kits and plans, develop software and collect data and documentation freely in open-source, so that anyone can build and use precision farm machinery.

By Manon Garnier