Autoponics Update: The Surreality of (Hacker)Space Farming

If you haven’t been by the space lately, you are missing out on the future! The future that is robotic farming, aka Autoponics.

I remember Daniel Z talking about this idea over a year ago and it is now a growing concern, quite literally. A grant from CU was quite motivating to make the Autoponics vision finally become a reality. Literal physical seeds were planted in early March, and it only takes a glance to tell the project is a success.

As we watch the plants reach up and out – tomatoes smothering their chive neighbors, zucchini blatantly ignoring its flourescent ceiling, lettuce bushing out healthily – it’s becoming difficult to see the matrix for the plants. The skeletal system includes 1/2 inch spray lines for irrigation contained within 4 inch diameter PVC pipes for housing, holes for small pots with growing medium for the plants. Water circulates via a pump and fluorescents provide light. While the team members had begun working on implementing an RGBD (“D” for depth) using the Microsoft Kinect and Asus Xtion Pro structured light sensors, the resolution was just not good enough to capture the level of detail they were after. So, they moved on to using a high resolution webcam for visual data and a laser scanner to reproduce the contours of the plant as a 3D point cloud. The monitoring system which will judge the plants’ needs, identify growth stages, and alert the team through a web interface when the plants are ready to harvest.

The group set up a special website where you can find more info and watch the plants grow from the comfort of your laptop via a live webcam (the webcam is presently unavailable due to exceeding bandwidth – hope to be back online soon). Or even better, drop by the space on a Tuesday evening or a Sunday afternoon, when the team, which includes Daniel Z, Todd, Peter, Ben and a few others, gathers to augment and improve the setup. (Check with our Google Group or Daniel for time on Sunday.)

Autoponics Report

We met up at Solid State Depot around 1PM and started drawing up some plans for a setup to test different sprayers with the 1/2 horsepower 1″ water pump. Pretty quickly, we realized that we needed bins, more pipe and fittings, and a ball valve to make it all work. So, we went on a run to McGuckins to pick up supplies.

Liz, Willy and I worked on cutting, priming and gluing the PVC. We drilled and tapped 3 holes into a length of 1/2″ PVC for the sprayers, and put a pressure gauge at the end of the length to get a reading on psi.

The glue set while Dan and I cruised over to Bococo. The guys there were kind enough to hook us up with 2 IDE hard drives to get some new workstations up and running at our space.

When we returned, I filled up the reservoir and turned on the pump. Nothing happened. Well, the pump was running but no water was flowing. It turns out you have to get water into the system first, at least with the approx. 1′ rise we had in our intake line. Filled the pipe with some water by hand, then turned it on and it started flowing nicely.

Before the test we had no idea how much psi we’d be able to achieve with the pump. To operate misting nozzles you need 40-80 psi. When the system started up, the regulator valve was fully open, so the sprayer line was receiving hardly any pressure. At about halfway closed, the 1″ regulator valve raised the pressure in the spray line to about 25 psi which was enough to get the sprinkler-type spray nozzles working pretty well. Turning the regulator valve to ~80% closed sent the pressure up to 65 psi and the misting nozzles started producing a fine mist.

The brass nozzle creates the finest mist with the lowest flow rate. The white plastic nozzle creates a mist that’s slightly less fine, and it looks like more water flows out.

We wrapped the spray line with a section of 4″ sewer pipe to simulate the tube-within-a-tube setup for an aeroponics rig. In this video you can see the brass mister in the foreground, a sprinkler in the middle that is off (serving as a plug), and the other mister at the far end. The black thing at the near end of the sprayer line is the pressure gauge.

You can see how the mist from the far misting nozzle is bouncing off the tube and creating a nice chaotic blizzard of fine particles. This is good because it means the roots should get fairly even coverage as the mist blows around the interior of the pipe.

Thanks to Henry for bringing the waterproof video camera.

Autoponics: The Future of Food

Growing  a plant seems like a fairly straightforward affair, right? Stick a seed in the ground, apply regular water and sunshine, and a few months later, voila.  Sure, that may cut it for the budding agriculturalists of 10,000 BP who had a small tribe to feed. But what about modern society and its globally interconnected community, 7 billion strong? Supplying these vast numbers with a variety of nutritious and tasty crops over and over  again, with failsafe protection from drought, disease, and pests…well, now things get a little more complex. Luckily, the grey matter of homo sapiens gives them a penchant for solving complex problems, and so humans have attacked the problem with an effective mix of hardware, chemicals and biotechnology, boosting crop yields and improving harvest reliability to support a global appetite.

Among our cadre of techno-ape innovations are combine harvesters, hand-crafted genomes, and bubbling brews of bug-killer which have all helped agricultural output keep pace with the insatiable demands of population growth. The approach we’ve taken thus far has put our full  confidence behind monocultures at the forefront, which, sturdied by a chemical crutch, have led to an under-recognized dark side of  farming—runoff. The term sounds innocuous, as if we’re talking about a bit of muddy water spilling off the farm into our waterways. In fact,  agricultural runoff is the number one cause of pollution planet-wide, contributing to the destruction of estuaries, coral reefs, acidification of the water table, loss of topsoil, nutrient leeching, biodiversity loss, and disease.

Step Aside Human, Your Work Here is Done

As if the environmental challenges weren’t reason enough to fix farming, there’s another item that I personally find the most interesting of the whole equation—the fact that people are actually still doing this stuff. I would have hoped that by now, 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and our species armed to the hilt with mind-blowing technology and computing power, us humans would have rendered ourselves irrelevant when it comes to attaining our calories.

Nourishment. It’s one of those annoying biological needs that we’ve had to deal with for too damn long. Don’t you think it’s about time we solved this whole labor-for-food thing once and for all? Plus, attaining food through labor has that nasty side effect of making it cost money. Sure, we’ve eliminated most jobs in farming with the  increased use of machinery, but there’s still plenty more work to do. I  want to see us get humans out of the picture altogether, up and down the  entire chain of production, processing, and distribution of the global food supply.

At each step in the process of getting food from the seed to your dinner  plate, opportunity for automation abounds, and automation is becoming more a part of our farming reality every day. Robotic seed sorters and planters, computer-controlled indoor environments free of pathogens and pests, waste recycling, pruning, harvesting, packing, shipping…all of these fit in with the idea of Autoponics.

In its highest form, Autoponics is the total cybernation of the complete seed-to-harvest,  packaging and distribution processes of food production.

The end game of Autoponics is worldwide food security through low- or zero-cost,  zero-waste, abundant and sustainable computerized food production, marking the end of human labor in the agricultural sector altogether. I want to see people value food like they value water—vitally important, but you think I’m gonna pay for that? The stuff falls out of the sky. It ought to be free.

So, you could say I want to make food fall from the sky. However, its more about taking food to the sky, in skyscrapers. Combine autoponics with vertical farming, an idea championed by Dickson Despommier in his new book, The Vertical Farm, and you have the future of food. Stack cybernated greenhouses 40 stories high and you have 50,000 fed on an acre of ground. With the shift of food production from the heartland to the heart of the city, we’ll have eliminated unspeakable inefficiencies in the food industry.  Existing farmland could then be left alone to return to its natural state as grassland prarie and hardwood forest, bringing back  biodiversity, eliminating runoff, and revitalizing ecosystems around the world.

What Kind of Future Do You Want? Are You Building It?

Good questions to ask. The more I ask myself those question, the less I enjoy my day job. 🙂 Well, more correctly, asking that question makes me less satisfied with the status quo and itching to be a part of building the future that I want to see. It also has a lot to do with why I joined Hackerspace.

I could go on for hours espousing the virtues of cybernated vertical farming over traditional methods, but let’s get down to practical matters. We’ve got a Hackerspace, some really smart people, and an idea. So let’s get to hacking and figure out how Autoponics really works.

For more information, come to Solid State Depot any given Tuesday at 7:30PM, or contact

Autoponics project wiki page.