in DOW-IoT

Device of the week(IoT): FarmBot

On first glance, I wasn’t quite sure if I love or hate the FarmBot. The nerd in me is intrigued with the automation, the engineering and the tech behind all of this. But this also conflicts with the practicality side of me.

Let’s take a moment to review what is the FarmBot .

FarmBot is an automated(for the most part), CNC-gantry-style machine featuring modular replaceable head tool, that helps you, grow vegetables. Through a highly customisable web interface, you can ‘design’ your plot allotment, and set watering/fertilising details, and let the bot do everything else. It even claims to have the ability to utilise computer vision to detect weeds and growth problems. It has been widely adopted in domestic, academic, research and even commercial(includes NASA) settings. The bot is also connected to the Internet, allowing you to continue to tend to your produce while on vacation. The team has also been gracious enough to make the project open source(both software and hardware), allowing anyone to adapt and modify for their own purposes.

The premise is simple and straightforward, but I think the implications and use-cases are worth considering. For one, I don’t feel that this product is suited for solving the impending crisis of feeding a growing population. The practicalities of growing any substantial amount of food should be dedicated to someone who is doing it for a living, and not as a side project or hobby. Even for the homemaker who is adopting the FarmBot for self-sufficiency, I can’t see how having one makes it easier than just simply reading up and learning through the visceral experience of growing your own produce, while accumulating locale-specific knowledge, with consideration for climate, seasons, resource availability etc. Having the bot just makes everything unnecessarily complex; servicing broken parts, supplying electricity, firmware upgrades; you get the idea.

However, I do see this as a perfect candidate for research applications, especially in experiments where carefully controlled scenarios and high repeatability are needed to study specific details of agriculture in a scientific, quantifiable way. If anything, vegetables produced this way for consumption is most probably the most expensive way out of all existing options. There was a section titled Carbon-footprint on the official site. A cursory glance confirmed my doubts that many of the assumptions on that page have been ‘adjusted’ to fit their preferred rhetoric, but to each his own.

In summary, I think this is a neat product, but its feasibility is probably limited to educational and research purposes. This is typical of modern day engineering where we strive to find solutions to either problems that don’t exist, or problems with time-tested ‘classical’ methods.