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High tech farming robot is designed for home gardeners

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It's a tough spring in California for committed gardeners who need to contemplate how our record dry spell will affect what they plant and tend to for this year’s fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens.

The complexities of gardening are what drive the passion for some. But others don’t quite possess the knowledge, talents, time, or even the physical abilities it takes to successfully work the soil. That's where a new invention, something called FarmBot, comes in.

This new invention could open the world of gardening to just about anyone with a little plot of Earth and the will to bring it to life.

The brains behind FarmBot is 23-year-old Rory Aronson who describes it as "an open-source, automated, precision-farming machine." His dream of making it available to the masses was realized in January of this year when he was awarded a $125,000 grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation, an organization working to promote innovation and social change.

“They saw me and the FarmBot project as an idea  as something worthy and promising and that it’s going to make a large impact on the world.” Aronson said. He's a Cal Poly grad who came up with the idea for the machine when a local farmer spoke in one of his classes about a new tractor that had a computer and camera to help it to till the ground differently for different plants. Aronson realized that he could achieve similar results in a simpler and more precise way, and the concept of FarmBot was born.

Aronson gave us a tour of the building where he and his team are working on the first version, FarmBot Genesis. It’s one of the many projects being designed at SLOMakerspace, a collaborative workspace that’s full with all kinds of word-working and metalworking machinery that people can use to build their dream inventions.

FarmBot Genesis will initially be offered in several kit sizes, all with the same core components.

“It functions similar to a 3D printer, but instead of extruding plastic, it has relevant tools for growing plants, such as a seed injector, a watering nozzle, and sensors," said Aronson. "Essentially, it's a completely automated farmer garden.”

The open source aspect of it means it can be modified, distributed, or sold by anyone as they please, allowing it to reach its maximum potential as a product. The price tag will likely run around $1,000 or less.

As the system is completely scalable, it can be tailored to your specific garden’s needs. It can be modified to operate in a backyard, on a rooftop, and in a greenhouse. Ultimately, it can also be adapted to work for large-scale, commercial farming operations as well.

“We’re building FarmBot for the layperson, the person who doesn’t have a green thumb, to help them successfully grow a garden and grow their own food," Aronson said. "You go to your computer and you more or less graphically design the farmer garden.”

Anyone can go online and easily tell the machine where it wants specific plants to be grown and FarmBot will carry out all the gardening tasks on its own.

Even gardening experts in the community see the potential behind this idea. Master Gardener Volunteer Kim views FarmBot as a great opportunity for elderly members of the community.

“It might even expand the number of gardeners we have, its very exiting," Kim said. "Where it may be most applicable is for disabled, for older people who may find it harder and harder to get out in the garden but still want to and maybe people who aren’t very knowledgeable about gardening.”

For several months, Aronson has been working with a team of more than 20 people from all over the world who became involved in the FarmBot project over the web. One of the most critical pieces of the project is the source of the information for the machine.

“The specifics on how to grow comes from a service called OpenFarm, which is sort of like the Wikipedia of gardening and farming knowledge,” said Aronson. 

OpenFarm allows individuals to post information on how to take care of specific types of plants in certain climates. FarmBot draws its information on how to tend to each type of plants from this service.

So for now, Aronson and his team continue to work hard on the project and hope to have it available to consumers by the end of the year. After that, Aronson says he’ll consider moving onto his next project as he’s working to build a FarmBot community that can easily continue on in his absence.