In 2014, Rory Aronson launched FarmBot, a farming robot built on open-source principles. It wasn’t long before they were noticed by NASA engineers, interested in farm testing under the most extreme circumstances:
“The Kennedy Space Center got one of our very first units so they have it in one of their labs and what they’re looking at is how can this type of technology be combined with a smart greenhouse and other environmental control systems to be able to grow food in space, on the moon, Mars and who knows where else NASA wants to go.”
WATCH our first video with Rory Aronson on FarmBot from 2016.
But extreme farming (as a possible “terraforming” beginning in other planets) isn’t only a matter of interest to space agencies and companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin, but a testing field for precision farming on Earth, especially when water and/or nutrients need to be rationed to their bare minimum necessary to maximize yield.
Heatwave and drought conditions demand optimization of irrigation and/or pest control at a big scale. Interestingly, this adaptation of precision farming for changing conditions on Earth has arisen the interest of NASA. Also, technology developed for its use in space has also improved designs on Earth, from velcro to dustbusters, cochlear implants, and other spinoffs.
A few years later, NASA engineers invited Aronson and his core FarmBot team to the Kennedy Space Center to brainstorm innovative open-source approaches to food production. The FarmBot Genesis v1.2 continues to inspire NASA scientists as they design the systems that will ultimately grow food off-world.
Back at FarmBot headquarters in San Luis Obispo, California, Aronson and team have grown out of Rory’s house into a warehouse where they ship their consumer smart farm kits worldwide. They’ve also grown their largest FarmBot to date, the 18-meter-long (60 foot) MAX tailored at “small commercial farming, cutting edge research, and gardening on a massive scale”.
While the MAX didn’t sell as they’d hoped, their Express model is one of their most successful and it’s tailored at the non-geeks: just two hours of set-up time (as opposed to the 40 hours for their original model). Aronson’s goal with this simple Internet-connected setup is to provide non-techies, and non-farmers, with an automated garden that feels like a home appliance. It seeds, waters, weeds and eventually will tell you when your vegetables are ready to pick with a message to your phone and even throw in a suggested recipe.
The FarmBot technology is all open-source and Aronson and team have been very successful at cultivating techies all over the world who have contributed to making the product better by tinkering with items like watering devices or off-grid energy supply stations. It’s the strength of this collaborative community that NASA hopes to draw upon to find solutions for off-world farming.