When most of us think of 3D printers, we typically imagine the desktop machines that are used for creating small plastic objects, or the larger scale industrial level machines used for prototyping, and in some cases the printing of production ready parts. Then there are the extremely large 3D printers that have been created for the printing of concrete structured buildings and other large objects. Perhaps the printers which have the most intriguing uses are those which can print food. These printers, which are still only in the early stages of development, allow those with minimal food preparation experience to print out meals using specially designed software. All of these 3D printers have the potential to bring resources to countries and people who typically don’t have access to traditional means of manufacturing. Yet, none of them ensure massive food production that could help feed the world’s hungry.
The FarmBot Foundation, may have come up with a solution. They plan to take this technology to an entirely new level by creating a 3D Printer that is capable of, you guessed it, farming. The Farmbot is a CNC/3D printer-like machine that can be used for farming and gardening. Their goal is a lofty one. They hope to create an open source hardware, software and data solution that allows anyone, anywhere to build and operate their 3D farming printer, the FarmBot.
“The world’s population is growing and with that growth we must produce more food,” wrote Rory Landon Aronson, project organizer at FarmBot. “Due to the industrial and petrochemical revolutions, the agriculture industry has kept up in food production, but only by compromising the soil, the environment, our health, and the food production system itself. The increased production has largely come from incremental changes in technology and economies of scale, but that trend is reaching a plateau. Conventional agriculture methods are unsustainable and a paradigm shift is needed.”
The FarmBot employs a similar system to that of typical Cartesian (xyz) based 3D printers, and as you can tell by the photos, it looks very similar to most FDM 3D printers. Instead of printing in your typical PLA or ABS plastics, this machine has the ability to do most of the typical farm jobs that would normally require hard labor and/or individual machines. It can be equipped with different tools, in a similar way as a CNC machine is. Some of those tools include seed injectors, plows, burners, robotic arms (for harvesting), cutters, shredders, tillers, discers, watering nozzles, sensors and more. The hardware used is completely open source and totally scalable for use on any sized farm/garden plots.
“The vision of this project is to create an open and accessible technology aiding everyone to grow food and to grow food for everyone,” explained Aronson. “The mission is to grow a community that produces free and open source hardware plans, software, data, and documentation enabling everyone to build and operate a farming machine.”
Some of the advantages that the FarmBot provides are:
- The ability to plant in a more efficient manner.
- The ability to optimize typical farming objectives such as spraying of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Each plant can be programmed for specific water/fertilizer needs.
- The ability to eliminate soil compaction that is oftentimes seen with traditional tractor equipment.
- Ensuring perfect seed spacing and most efficient planting layouts.
- Running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Allowing for an unlimited amount of farm designs.
- Allowing for ‘Smart Farming’ by using specialized open source software and data.
- Being Completely scalable, whether you want to use it for backyard gardening, or large scale farming.
- Allowing for the decentralization and democratization of food production.
- Accessibility for virtually anyone, anywhere in the world.
- Allowing for farmers/gardeners to keep track of exact locations of seed plantings, waterings, etc.
- Allowing for advanced weed removable without damaging plants, due to precise selective burning, spraying and tilling.
This project actually began back in 2011, when Aronson was in his Junior year of college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, studying Mechanical Engineering. He decided to take a class in Organic Agriculture, and it generated a strong interest and desire to create a system that is better than what we currently have today. When you come to think about it, much of the technology used in farming today dates back hundreds of years, and in many cases hasn’t changed with the times. While other businesses innovate through the use of sophisticated robotics, computer software, and 3D printers, farming has been stuck in a bit of a rut.
The tremendous potential that FarmBot creates, allows for many new methods of farming, including the ability to create “polycrops” which mix and match different crops, unlike methods seen on typical farms. This creates an advantage by providing “superior biological efficiency”. The diversity within the ecosystem allows for the growing of vegetation in conditions as close to nature as possible. Plants are allowed to work together, like nature had originally intended. Traditionally this has been impossible, as each different plant species requires different care techniques. For example, some crops require more water than others, while some crops require water at their stalk, rather than at their base. Some plants require more or different types of fertilizers than others. FarmBot’s software makes this process extremely simple, as each plant can virtually be programmed for their individual needs.
With the use of sensors, the FarmBot can gauge mosture levels, temperatures, rain amounts, humidity, wind speed/direction, pH levels of soil, and much more. The machine can be equipped with virtually any sensor desired, including computer aided vision, and hyperspectral imaging. This data can then be sent to a computer where necessary changes to the programming can be made.
The software used by FarmBot is, and will continue to be developed, to be extremely in-depth and sophisticated. Calculations of total expenditure can be made, in order for farms to maximize crop output while minimizing costs. It can be programmed with certain zones that require different types of care, as well as different harvesting schedules. Farmers and gardeners can share data and techniques through an open source database, so that everyone, everywhere can have access to the best farming programs for their FarmBots.
All-in-all the FarmBot appears to be a perfect solution for providing food to the world, while also maximizing efficiency on today’s establish farms. Since the technology is all open source, the costs to create a FarmBot will be minimal. FarmBot plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign sometime in the first quarter of 2015.
“If the technology and the model prove viable, and we think it already is, then we may be uncovering a part of a solution to one of humanity’s most contemporary challenges,” explained Aronson.
What do you think? Is the FarmBot the 3D printer of the future? Will it revolutionize farming, and provide food for those most in need? Discuss in the FarmBot Forum thread on 3DPB.com. Check out Rory Aronson’s TEDx talk on the FarmBot below: