If FarmBot founder Rory Aronson fulfills his vision, a robotic gardening machine will one day become a standard household appliance.
“Pretty much everyone in developed countries has a microwave oven and a refrigerator. And if they have the space, they probably have a washing machine and dryer at home, too,” he says. “Every appliance has a specific function and you just plug them in, press some buttons and forget about it. These things add a lot of convenience to our lives and we see FarmBot headed in the same direction. It should make economic sense for everybody to be a participant in the food production process.”
The FarmBot Genesis is “humanity’s first open-source CNC farming machine.” The automated machine plants seeds, waters them, detects and removes weeds and uses sensors to monitor the soil, weather and environment “to farm smarter over time.” The farmer can tend crops without getting his or her hands dirty, controlling the FarmBot from any computer, phone or tablet (see a video here).
FarmBot’s user interface is meant to make gardening fun, like you are playing a video game. In the initial session, “players” drag and drop their vegetable choices into a map with the seeds being automatically spaced by the software. “A lot of people say this reminds them of playing ‘Farmville’ on Facebook a few years ago,” Aronson says. “It’s really like that or SimCity or StarCraft where you’re building a virtual system, except at the end you get a functional, tangible result – like salad, berries or your food for the weekend.”
Based in California, the company has 8 full-time employees, including two hardware engineers, but also collaborates with more than 300 open-source contributors around the world. The company’s mission is to publicly share all its design work, encouraging enthusiasts to modify and improve the 3D models to their own specifications. Build-It-Yourself kits for the FarmBot Genesis sell for $2,595 and include everything except the planter bed, garden hose and extension cord.
Onshape's Secure Cloud Workspace Speeds Up Design
To design the FarmBot Genesis, Aronson chose Onshape, a modern professional 3D CAD system that unites modeling tools and design data management in a secure cloud workspace.
FarmBot has a core development team of six people who work internally on new improvements before releasing them to hundreds of open-source contributors around the world. Onshape’s simultaneous editing tools, allowing multiple people to collaborate on the same model at the same time, have been especially valuable as the core team is spread out between California, Arizona, Illinois and Belgium.
“Shifting to Onshape was very much like the shift from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. All of a sudden, the power of collaboration was unlocked,” Aronson says. “It's great to be in the same Document as another hardware engineer and editing stuff simultaneously or being able to watch or provide feedback. When we're both in the same workspace, I can update parts while my partner is updating the assembly.”
“When we need to get parts to our manufacturers or need to make a prototype on the 3D printer, we do things a lot quicker in Onshape,” he adds. “For us, this has meant at least a 50% to 100% increase in productivity as opposed to the old CAD workflow where only a single person can access a document at a time.”
The FarmBot team also values Onshape’s instant accessibility on any computer, tablet or phone. “I use both a Windows and a Mac computer, but I used to be tied to just Windows when I was using SOLIDWORKS,” Aronson says. “Our other hardware engineer prefers Linux, so he can also be consulted in some software development. So it's really nice for him to be able to load up Onshape in the browser on his platform, and I can use it on my two platforms.”
“We also like using it on our phones, whether it’s at a party showing somebody a part to convey my idea, or in a car ride on the way to the manufacturer to update a part file or a drawing at the very last minute,” he adds.
Onshape is Perfect for Open-Source Projects
As of December 2017, more than a thousand people had copied the Onshape Public Document for version 1.3 of the FarmBot Genesis. Onshape is perfect for sharing open-source hardware projects because it not only gives contributors instant access to the CAD model, but also to the professional CAD tools needed to make modifications.
“Onshape gets rid of a lot of barriers for us. You don’t need to download any software. All you need to do is create an account and it’s free,” Aronson says. “With any other system, you have to install software, be on the right computing platform or maybe export the files into other formats and import it into your system of choice. Sometimes you lose the design intention or it imports incorrectly.”
“Onshape does away with all those problems because it is accessible to anybody – and that’s what you ultimately want with open source. Often times the open-source tools they give you aren’t good enough for what you're trying to do. Onshape is very powerful, but equally important is that it’s user-friendly and easy to learn for our contributors.”
FarmBot’s documentation is also open source, released under a common license developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation. For those who wish to go off-the-grid, there is a dedicated section in the FarmBot Forums discussing modifications for solar panels.
Devil's Advocate: Will Robots Run Old-Fashioned Gardening?
The FarmBot enables a couch potato to grow potatoes from the comfort of his or her remote control. It does all the planting, watering, weeding and will even scare birds and other animals for you. It monitors the weather and adjusts plans accordingly. The only time you need to go outside is to pick your food. But what about traditional gardeners who enjoy getting their hands dirty – who appreciate feeling a deep physical connection to the land?
“Certainly, FarmBot is not for everyone,” concedes Aronson. “We’re not trying to replace somebody’s hobby or take away therapeutic time in the garden. FarmBot is meant for people who otherwise wouldn’t grow their own food and that's the vast majority of us. FarmBot customers like the concept of self-sufficiency. They like the idea of having a garden at home, but they don't have the time to get out there every single day.”
Outside of home consumer use, the FarmBot has proven itself as a useful educational tool and a platform for horticultural therapy, empowering disabled individuals who otherwise could not garden the ability to grow their own food. In 2017, the core FarmBot team was invited to present its technology at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for a forum on growing food in space.
“The FarmBot isn’t a silver bullet for global food production, but we think it can be an important component of the future of agriculture,” Aronson says. “There’s only so much food you can grow in your backyard. We’re bringing in people who previously were not engaged in food production and giving them more ownership. Now we’re going to have that many more people thinking about where their food comes from and potentially thinking about other ways to address world hunger.”