At this point the average Hackaday reader is likely familiar with so-called “Proof of Work” (PoW) cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Dogecoin. In the most basic of terms, these cryptocurrencies allow users to earn money by devoting computational power to the network. Unfortunately, it’s well past the point where your standard desktop CPU is moving enough bits to earn anything worthwhile. Individuals looking to turn a profit have therefore resorted to constructing arrays of high-end graphics cards for the express purpose of “mining” their cryptocurrency of choice.
These miners, combined with ongoing chip shortages, have ravaged the GPU market. Anyone who’s looked at building or upgrading a computer recently will know that new video cards are in short supply, and even old models that would otherwise be considered budget options, are commanding outrageous prices. In an effort to appease their core customers, NVIDIA has even introduced cryptocurrency-specific cards that lack video output. The hope was that professional miners would buy these Cryptocurrency Mining Processors (CMPs) instead of the traditional video cards, freeing up the latter for purchase by gamers. But due to the limited availability and relatively high cost of CMPs, they’ve done little to improve the situation.
Now if you don’t use your computer for gaming, this probably seems like a distant problem. You could even be forgiven for thinking of this as little more than two largely frivolous pursuits at loggerheads with each other. After all, in a community that still holds decades-old Thinkpads as the high water mark in portable computing, a certain ambivalence about cutting edge video cards is perhaps to be expected.
But there’s a new form of cryptocurrency on the rise which threatens more than just the hardcore gamers. With “Proof of Space” (PoS) cryptocurrencies, it’s not about having the fastest CPU or the highest number of GPUs; the commodity being traded is storage space, and the player with the most hard drives wins.
For more than a few years now, we’ve been covering the saga of tractors from the larger manufacturers on which all components are locked down by software to the extent that they can only be replaced by officially sanctioned dealers. We’re thus pleased to see a couple of moments when the story has broken out of the field of a few farmers and right-to-repair geeks and into the mainstream. First up: a segment on the subject from NPR is worth a listen, as the US public radio station interviews a Montana farmer hit by a $5k fuel sensor on his John Deere as a hook form which to examine the issue. Then there is a blog post from the National Farmers Union, the body representing UK farmers, in which they too lay out the situation and also highlight the data-grabbing aspects of these machines.
A fresh egg taken from beneath a slumbering hen is something to which the taste of a supermarket equivalent rarely compares. The satisfaction of having a contented flock does come at a price though, in the form of constant monitoring and husbandry of your poultry’s well-being. It’s a problem that [hms-11] has tried to address with CoopCommand, a system to automate the monitoring of and environment within a chicken coop. It controls a light to counteract for shorter winter days, warms their water when it’s cold, has a fan for cooling and ventilation on hot days, and a camera to keep any eye on them.
At its heart is an ATmega328 controlling the coop functions, and an ESP32 camera board for network connectivity and visual monitoring. An alphanumeric LCD and a set or buttons provide the interface, and all is fitted on a custom PCB in a smart 3D-printed housing. Meanwhile all the files can be found in a GitHub repository.
A machine cannot replace human care and attention when it comes to good animal husbandry, as there’s always an essential need for the poultry owner to attend to the needs of their charges. But a system like this one can make an important contribution to their welfare, with a consequent increase in their laying ability.
It’s likely that among our readers are more than a few who hold an affection for trains. Whether you call them railroads or railways they’re the original tech fascination, and it’s no accident that the word Hacker was coined at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. So some of you like us watch locomotive YouTube videos, others maybe have an OO layout tucked away somewhere, and still more cast an eye at passing trains wishing they were aboard. Having a proper railway of one’s own remains a pipe-dream, but perhaps a hardcore rail enthusiast might like to take a look at [Way Out West Blow-in blog’s] video series on building a farm railway.
On a smallholding there is always a lot to be moved around, and frequently not the machinery with which to do it. Using a wheelbarrow or handcart on rough ground is as we can attest, back-breaking, so there’s a real gap in the market for anything to ease the task. So a railway becomes an attractive solution, assuming that its construction cost isn’t prohibitive.
The videos below the break are the first two of what will no doubt become a lengthy series, and deals with the construction of the rails themselves including the sleepers cut with a glorious home-made band saw, and then fishplates and a set of rudimentary points. The rails themselves are off-the-shelf flat steel strip laid upon its edge, and secured to the sleepers by short lengths of galvanized tube. It’s clear this isn’t a railroad in the sense that we might understand it, indeed though it uses edge rail it has more in common for its application with some early mining plateways But assuming that the flat strip rail doesn’t twist we can see that it should be perfectly adequate for hand-driven carts, removing the backbreaking aspect of their moving. It will be interesting to follow this project down the line.
The world of automated farming may be an unglamorous one to those not invested in its attractions, but like the robots themselves that quietly get on in the background with tending crops, those who follow that path spend many seasons refining their designs. The Acorn is a newly-open-sourced robot from Twisted Fields, a Californian research farm, and it provides a fascinating look at the progress of a farming robot design from germination onwards.
The Acorn is not a CNC gantry for small intensive gardens in the manner of designs such as the Farmbot, instead it’s an autonomous solar-powered rover intended for larger farms which will cruise the fields continuously tending to the plants in its patch. It’s a work in progress, so what we see is the completed rover with the tools and machine vision to follow. It pursues the course of a low-cost lightweight platform, an aluminium chassis surmounted by the solar panel, with mountain bike front fork derived wheels at each corner. It has four wheel drive and four wheel steering, meaning that it can traverse the roughest of farmland. We can see its progress since a 2019 prototype, and while it seems as slow as the seasons themselves to mature, we can see that the final version could be a significantly useful machine on a small farm.
A trip to a supermarket is a rare luxury in a pandemic lockdown, but were I to cruise the aisles with my basket today I’d probably come away with a healthy pile of fruit and veg, a bit of meat and fish, and maybe some cheese. My shopping basket in 2031 though might have a few extras, and perhaps surprisingly some of them might be derived from insects. That’s a future made a little closer, by EU scientists declaring that farmed insect products are safe for humans and animals to eat.
We humans, like some of our fellow great ape cousins, are omnivores. We can eat anything, even if we might not always want to eat some things twice. As such, the diets of individual populations would in the past have varied hugely depending on the conditions that existed wherever they lived, giving us the ability to spread to almost anywhere on the planet — and we have.
Over the past few hundred years this need to subsist only on foods locally available has been marginalized by advances in agriculture. For those of us in developed countries, any foodstuff that takes our fancy can be ours for a trivial effort. This has meant an explosion of meat consumption as what was once a luxury food has become affordable to the masses, and in turn a corresponding agricultural expansion to meet demand that has placed intolerable stresses on ecosystems and is contributing significantly to global warming. It’s very clear that a mass conversion to veganism is unlikely to take place, so could farmed insects be the answer to our cravings for meat protein? It’s likely to be a tough sell to consumers, but it’s a subject that bears more examination. Continue reading “Would You Like Fries With Your Insect Burger, Ma’am?”→
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.