FarmBot brings robotic farming to your backyard garden
Open-source project allows you to buy a robot gardener, or build your own
The robots are coming... to water your garden.
While many people find gardening with their own two hands a relaxing activity, a company called FarmBot is now selling robots designed to weed, water and grow fresh produce for you.
CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener looks into the appeal of the robot gardener.
How does the FarmBot work?
The first version of the FarmBot — called the FarmBot Genesis — is designed to work in a raised garden bed or garden box.
The robot itself moves around using tracks on the sides of the box, and it works in three dimensions. So it can go left to right; forward and backwards; and up and down. If you've ever seen a 3D printer, it moves around in a similar way.
This robot has been in the works for a few years — but you can now actually buy one now. The California company behind the robot has started taking pre-orders, which cost about $4,000 Cdn. And in the last month, FarmBot has raised about $1 million to start manufacturing kits.
Who is the FarmBot for?
FarmBot seems to be designed for people who want to grow their own produce, but aren't terribly interested in the actual work of gardening to get that produce. If you browse through the FarmBot forums, you'll find a mix of hobbyists, tinkerers and educators — people with a decidedly technological bent.
Part of the idea behind FarmBot is that it's designed to work in relatively small gardens. If you pre-order a kit, you'll get standard tracks that are three metres long. The robot is designed to work on raised beds that are about about 1.5 by three metres. So small spaces — backyard farming, rooftop farming or small greenhouses.
One of the most interesting aspects of this project is that it applies the same kinds of automation we see in large-scale agriculture, but on a much smaller scale.
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FarmBot is open source. What does that mean?
It means the source code for all the software, and the blueprints for all the parts, are public and freely available — so you can modify or tweak it.
"If you want to use pesticides, you can do that. If you don't, you don't have to. If you want to water your plants in a certain way — maybe with mister nozzles, versus a shower nozzle, you can do that," he said.
"You can measure the pH, measure the temperature, measure whatever it is that you want to do, so you have complete control and agency over how you grow your food."
How can the FarmBot tend to different plants?
It taps into an earlier project called OpenFarm, which is an open-source crop database. You can think of it as sort of like Wikipedia, but for farming and gardening knowledge. For each crop, there are details about how much sun and water it needs, what type of soil is best, row spacing, and so on.
Because that database is designed to be read by both humans and machines, the FarmBot can download crop information and use it to tend a garden — giving each plant the right amount of water, testing the pH of the soil, that sort of thing.
The FarmBot is controlled by a web app, which you can use to manually control the robot. Or you can set it up on a schedule.
I don't have a FarmBot at home, but I have played with the app. If you remember the online game FarmVille, it's a bit like that. You lay out your crops, water your plants, and weed the garden. But unlike FarmVille, you're doing it with real plants.
If I want my own garden robot, what do I need?
As mentioned, FarmBot pre-orders have started, so you can buy your own kit. That gets you most of the hardware you'll need to put together a FarmBot, but you still have to supply the raised garden bed, the power, and the internet connection. And you have to put the whole thing together.
But if you have a bit more technical know-how, the entire FarmBot project is open source. So if you want to take a more do-it-yourself approach, you can download all the CAD models and manufacturing files to build your own.
And if you have access to a CNC router (a computer numerical control router — a cutting machine that's computer-controlled) router and 3D printer, you can print out many of the components you'll need to build a FarmBot. The rest, such as the computer components, are all readily available and relatively low-cost.
If you take the DIY approach, there are full instructions available online.
I know a lot of educators have built their own 3D printers and laser cutters as class projects. And if the FarmBot takes off, I can see it becoming another really great way to teach kids not only about electronics and coding, but also about farming.