Agriculture on any scale involves many tasks that require lifting, hauling, pushing, and pulling. On many modern farms, these tasks are often done using an array of specialized (and expensive) equipment. This puts many small-scale farmers, especially those in developing countries, under significant financial pressure. These challenges led a South African engineering firm to develop the Kotonki, a low-cost hydraulically powered utility vehicle that can be customized for a wide variety of use cases. Video after the break.
The name Kotonki is derived from the Setswana phrase for a donkey kart. It is in essence a self-propelled hydraulic power pack, capable of hauling 1 ton of anything that can fit on its load bed. It comes in front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive versions, with each wheel individually driven by a hydraulic motor. The simple welded steel frame articulates around a double pivot, which allows it to keep all 4 wheels on the ground over any terrain. At a max speed of 10 km/h it won’t win any races, but neither would most other agricultural vehicles. The Kotonki is built mostly using off-the-shelf components and is powered by a common 12HP Honda engine. In the world of DRM agricultural equipment, this makes for simple repairs, low running costs, and easy customization for the task at hand. This can include mounting log splitters, water pumps, lifting beds, or anything else that can be driven by its hydraulic and rotary PTOs (Power Take-Off).
Chinese researchers are reporting that applying an electric field to pea plants increased yields. This process — known as electroculture — has been tested multiple times, but in each case there are irregularities in the scientific process, so there is still an opportunity for controlled research to produce meaningful data.
This recent research used two plots of peas planted from the same pods. The plants were tended identically except one plot was stimulated by an electric field. The yield on the stimulated plot was about 20% more than the control plot.
The actual paper is paywalled in the journal Nature Food, but the idea seems simple enough. If you search for the topic, you’ll find there have been other studies with similar findings. There are also anecdotal reports of electrical plant stimulation going back to 1746.
Nuclear war was very much a front-of-mind issue during the fraught political climate of the Cold War era. Since then, atomic sabre rattling has been less frequent, though has never quite disappeared entirely.
Outside of the direct annihilation caused by nuclear war, however, is the threat of nuclear winter. The basic concept is simple: in the aftermath of a major nuclear war, the resulting atmospheric effects could lead to a rapid cooling in global temperatures.
Some say it couldn’t ever happen, while others – including Futurama – suggest with varying degrees of humor that it could help cancel out the effects of global warming. But what is the truth?
Hard data is isn’t really available, as thus far there have been no large-scale nuclear wars for scientists to measure. Several studies have explored the concept of nuclear winter, however, and explored its potential effects.
[Théo Gautier] thought that a human-following utility trailer would be helpful for people working on farms. He didn’t just think about it, however, he designed and built it as a final project at the Agrilab FabAcademy at the University UniLasalle Polytechnique in northern France. He took the idea from concept to fruition in six weeks.
His build log documents the project very well, and takes you through his design choices and their implementation. The brains of the cart are a SAMD21E board that he made himself, and its sensory perception of the world is provided by HC-SR04 ultrasonic sensors and a PixyCam 2. Locomotion is provided by four each 100W DC motor / gearbox assemblies. He’s put a lot of effort into the construction process and posted a lot of photos of the intermediate steps. One piece of advice that caught our eye was to measure the diagonals of your frame repeatedly when welding it together — things can and do shift around. If you don’t, you may have to rectify the mistake like [Théo] did, with a big hammer.
Many current efforts at weed detection and classification use fancy (and expensive) multispectral cameras, but PhenoCV-WeedCam relies primarily on an OAK-D stereo depth camera. The system is still being developed, but is somewhat further along than a proof of concept. The portable setups use a Raspberry Pi, stereo camera unit, power banks, an Android tablet for interfacing, and currently require an obedient human to move and point them.
It’s an interesting peek at the kind of hands-on work that goes into data gathering for development. Armed with loads of field data from many different environments, the system can use the data to identify grasses, broad leaf plants, and soil in every image. This alone is useful, but depth information also allows the system to estimate overall plant density as well as try to determine the growth center of any particular plant. Knowing that a weed is present is one thing, but to eliminate it with precision — for example with a laser or mini weed whacker on a robot arm — knowing where the weed is actually growing from is an important detail.
In America, corn syrup is king, and real sugar hovers somewhere around prince status. We’re addicted to corn, and corn, in turn, is addicted to nitrogen. A long time ago, people figured out that by rotating crops, the soil will stay nutrient-rich, which helps to an extent by retaining nitrogen. Then we figured out how to make nitrogen fertilizer, and through its use we essentially doubled the average crop yield over the last hundred years or so.
Not all plants need extra nitrogen. Legumes like beans and soybeans are able to make their own. But corn definitely needs nitrogen. In the 1980s, the now-chief of agriculture for Mars, Inc. Howard-Yana Shapiro went to Mexico, corn capital of the world, looking for new kinds of corn. He found one in southern Mexico, in the Mixes District of Oaxaca. Not only was this corn taller than American corn by several feet, it somehow grew to these dizzying heights in terrible soil.
So if we already have nitrogen fertilizer, why even look for plants that do it themselves? The Haber-Bosch fertilizer-making process, which is an artificial form of nitrogen fixation, does make barren soil less of a factor. But that extra nitrogen in ammonia-based fertilizer tends to run off into nearby streams and lakes, making its use an environmental hazard. And the process of creating ammonia for fertilizer involves fossil fuels, uses a lot of energy, and produces greenhouse gases to boot. All in all, it’s a horrible thing to do to the environment for the sake of agriculture. But with so many people to feed, what else is there to do?
Over the last decade, the UC Davis researchers use DNA sequencing to determine that the mucus on the Sierra Mixe variety of the plant provides microbes to the corn, which give it both sugars to eat and a layer of protection from oxygen. They believe that the plants get 30-80% of their nitrogen this way. The researchers also proved that the microbes do in fact belong to nitrogen-fixing families and are similar to those found in legumes. Most impressively, they were able to transplant Sierra Mixe corn to both Davis, California and Madison, Wisconsin, and have it grow successfully, proving that the nitrogen-fixing trick isn’t limited to the corn’s home turf. Now they are working to identify the genes that produce the aerial roots.
One Step in a Longer Journey of Progress
We probably won’t be switching over to Sierra Mixe corn anytime soon, however. It takes eight months to mature, which is much too slow for American appetites used to a three-month maturation period. If we can figure out how to make other plants do their own nitrogen fixation, who knows how far we could go? It seems likely that more people would accept a superpower grafted from a corn cousin instead of trying to use CRISPR to grant self-nitrogen fixation, as studies have shown a distrust of genetically modified foods.
The issue of intellectual property rights could be a problem, but the researchers started on the right foot with the Mexican government by putting legal agreements in place that ensure the Sierra Mixe community benefits from research and possible commercialization. We can’t wait to see what they’re able to do. If they’re unable to transplant the power of self-fixation to other plants, then perhaps there’s hope for improving the Haber-Bosch process.
The MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) promised to revolutionize urban farming with their Food Computers: essentially miniature automated gardens that could be installed in racks to maximize growing space. Each unit would be provided with a “Recipe” that allowed it to maintain the ideal environmental conditions for the species it contained, which meant that even the novice gardener to produce a bumper crop no whether they lived in the Arctic Circle or the Sahara.
With such lofty goals, success certainly wasn’t assured. But we still didn’t expect to hear that the program had to be permanently closed after a string of startling accusations came to light. From engaging in scientific dishonesty to setting off a minor ecological disaster, the story just gets worse and worse. Who could have imagined that one day we’d have to report on an open source project having direct ties to Jeffrey Epstein?
According to reports, MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito and OpenAg principal researcher Caleb Harper attempted to secure $1.5 million in funding for the program during a 2017 meeting with the disgraced financier. Epstein apparently wasn’t impressed by what he saw, and no money ever changed hands. Given the information we now have about the project, this might actually be the least surprising part of the story.
It has since come to light that the Food Computers never worked consistently, and indeed never made it past the prototype stage. This despite the fact that Harper claimed that functional units had already been deployed to refugee camps during presentation to potential investors. A scientist working with the project has even come forward with claims that staff were instructed to place plants brought from local garden centers into the prototype Food Computers prior to tours of the lab so visitors would think they had been grown in the devices.
A former researcher working on the OpenAg program, Babak Babakinejad, also went public with his concerns over the environmental impact of dumping waste water from the Food Computers. The lab had a permit to pump nitrogen-infused water into an underground disposal well, but according to Babakinejad, internal testing showed the nitrogen levels in the water would occasionally top 20 times the stated limit. After his concerns were ignored by Harper and other MIT staff, he eventually took his concerns directly to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection which led to an investigation and ultimately a fine of $25K.
We first covered the Open Agriculture Initiative back in 2016, and readers expressed doubts about the concept even then. While we certainly don’t relish making an update like this about a project we’ve featured, it’s an important reminder that honesty and integrity can’t take a backseat to technical achievement.