The Hackaday Prize: Growing Your Own Soil

When a rainforest is clearcut for agricultural use, we only see the surface problems: fewer trees, destruction of plant and animal habitats, and countless other negative effects on the environment. A lurking problem, however, is that the soil is often non-ideal for farming. When the soil is exhausted, the farmers move further into the rainforest and repeat the process.

In the Amazon, however, there are pockets of man-made soil that are incredibly nutrient-dense. Figuring out how to make this soil, known as Terra Preta, on a massive scale would limit the amount of forest destruction by providing farmers a soil with more longevity which will, in turn, limit the encroachment on the rainforest. That’s the goal of this Hackaday Prize entry by [Leonardo Zuniga]: a pyrolysis chemical reactor that can make this soil by turning organic matter into a type of charcoal that can be incorporated into the soil to make Terra Preta.

As a bonus to making this nutrient-dense soil on a massive scale, this reactor also generates usable energy as a byproduct of processing organic waste, which goes several steps beyond simple soil enrichment. If successful and scalable, this project could result in more efficient farming techniques, greater yields, and, best of all, less damage to the environment and less impact on the rainforests.

Hackaday Prize Entry: The Weedinator Project, Now with Flame

We like that the Weedinator Project is thinking big for this year’s Hackaday Prize! This ambitious project by [TegwynTwmffat] is building on a previous effort, which was a tractor mounted weeding machine (shown above). It mercilessly shredded any weeds; the way it did this was by tilling everything that existed between orderly rows of growing leeks. The system worked, but it really wasn’t accurate enough. We suspect it had a nasty habit of mercilessly shredding the occasional leek. The new version takes a different approach.

The new Weedinator will be an autonomous robotic rover using a combination of GPS and colored markers for navigation. With an interesting looking adjustable suspension system to help with fine positioning, the Weedinator will use various attachments to help with plant care. Individual weeds will be identified optically and sent to the big greenhouse in the sky via precise flame from a small butane torch. It’s an ambitious project, but [TegwynTwmffat] is building off experience gained from the previous incarnation and we’re excited to see where it goes.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Crop Data For Improved Yields

As the world’s population continues to increase, more food will be needed for all the extra mouths to feed. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of untapped available farmland. To produce extra food, crop yields need to increase. [Vignesh Ravichandran] is tackling this with the Farmcorder – a device for detecting crop nutrition levels.

The device centers around using spectroscopy to measure the chlorophyll content of leaves. This information can then be used to make educated decisions on the fertilizer required to maximize plant yield. In the past, this has been achieved with expensive bespoke devices, or, at the other end of the spectrum, simple paper color charts.

[Vignesh]’s project takes this to the next level, integrating a spectroscopy package with a GPS and logging over the GSM mobile network. This would allow farmers to easily take measurements out in the field and log them by location, allowing fertilizer application to be dialed in on a per-location basis.  The leaf sensor package is particularly impressive. Relying on a TSL2561 sensor IC, the samples are lit with 650nm and 940nm LEDs. The sensor readings can then be used to calculate the chlorophyll levels in the leaves.

It’s a project that sets out to tackle a serious world problem and uses off-the-shelf parts and some hacker know-how to do so. We hope to see this hardware on farms across the world in the near future!

Retrotechtacular: Farming Implements in 1932

Few people would deny that farming is hard work. It always has been, and it probably always will be no matter how fancy the equipment gets. In 1932, farming was especially grueling. There was widespread drought throughout the United States, which gave rise to dust bowl conditions. As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Even so, crop farming was still a viable and somewhat popular career path in 1932. After all, knowing how to grow food is always going to get you elected into your local post-apocalyptic council pretty quickly. As such, the John Deere Equipment Company released the 19th edition of their classic book, The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery. This book covers all of the various equipment a crop farmer needed to get from plough to bounty. The text gives equal consideration to horse-driven and tractor-driven farming implements, and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tractor engine maintenance.

According to its preface, this book was used as an agricultural text in schools and work-study programs. It offers a full course in maintaining the all the (John Deere) equipment needed to work the soil, plant crops, cultivate, harvest, and manure in all parts of the country. The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery was so well-received that John Deere kept the book in publication for over thirty years. The 28th edition and final edition came out in 1957. We wonder why they would have stopped putting it out after all that time. Maybe it wasn’t profitable enough, or the company decided to phase out the shade tree tractor mechanic.

So why should you delve into a sorely outdated textbook about farm equipment? Well, it’s straightforwardly written and easy to learn from, whether you’re trying or not. You should check it out if you’re even remotely curious about the basics of farming. If for no other reason, you should go for the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and stay for the interesting tables and charts in the back. Did you know that a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds?

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Submersible Robots Hunt Lice With Lasers

De-lousing is a trying agricultural process. It becomes a major problem in pens which contain the hundreds of thousands of salmon farmed by Norwegians — the world’s largest salmon exporter — an environment which allows the parasite to flourish. To tackle the problem, the Stingray, developed by [Stingray Marine Solutions],  is an autonomous drone capable of destroying the lice with a laser in the order of tens of thousands per day.

Introduced in Norway back in 2014 — and some areas in Scotland in 2016 — the Stingray floats in the salmon pen, alert and waiting. If the lice-recognition software (never thought you’d hear that term, huh?) detects a parasite for more than two frames in the video feed, it immediately annihilates it with a 530 nanometre-wide, 100 millisecond laser pulse from up to two metres away. Don’t worry — the salmon’s scales are reflective enough to leave it unharmed, while the pest is fried to a crisp.  In action, it’s reminiscent of a point-defense laser on a spaceship.

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The Icon Of American Farming That You Now Have To Hack To Own

If you wanted to invoke American farming with colour, which colours would you pick? The chances are they would be the familiar green and yellow of a John Deere tractor. It’s a name that has been synonymous with US agriculture since the 1830s, when the blacksmith whose name appears on the tractors produced his first steel plough blade. The words “American icon” are thrown around for many things, but in the case of John Deere there are few modern brands with as much history to back up their claim to it.

A trip across the prairies then is to drive past Deere products in use from most of the last century. They will still supply parts for machines they made before WW2, and farmers will remain loyal to the brand throughout their lives.

Well… That used to be the case.  In recent years a new Deere has had all its parts locked down by DRM, such that all maintenance tasks on the tractors must be performed by Deere mechanics with the appropriate software. If your tractor breaks in the field you can fit a new part as you always have done, but if it’s a Deere it then won’t run until a Deere mechanic has had a look at it. As a result, Motherboard reports that American farmers are resorting to Ukrainian-sourced firmware updaters to hack their machines and allow them to continue working.  An icon of American farming finds itself tarnished in its heartland.

We’ve reported on the Deere DRM issue before, it seems that the newest development is a licence agreement from last October that prohibits all unauthorised repair work on the machines as well as insulating the manufacturer from legal action due to “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software”. This has sent the farmers running to illicit corners of the internet to spend their dollars on their own Deere electronic updating kits rather than on call-out fees for a Deere mechanic. Farmers have had centuries of being resourceful, this is simply the twenty-first century version of the hacks they might have performed decades ago with baler twine and old fertiliser sacks.

You might ask what the hack is here, as in reality they’re just buying a product online, and using it. But this is merely the latest act in a battle in one industry that could have ramifications for us all. Farmers are used to the model in which when they buy a machine they own it, and the Deere DRM is reshaping that relationship to one in which their ownership is on the manufacturer’s terms. How this plays out over the coming years, and how it affects Deere’s bottom line as farmers seek tractors they can still repair, will affect how other manufacturers of products non-farmers use consider DRM for their own business models.

Outside the window where this is being written is a Deere from the 1980s. It’s a reliable and very well-screwed-together tractor, though given the subject of this piece it may be our last green and yellow machine. Its dented badge makes a good metaphor for the way at least for us the brand has been devalued.

Thanks [Jack Laidlaw] for the tip.

OpenAg Is A Personal Food Computer

When a device that calls itself a personal food computer lands in your timeline, what image springs to mind? A cloud-connected diet aid perhaps, advertised on TV infomercials by improbably fit-looking Californian ladies crediting all their health to a palm-sized unit that can be yours for only 199 dollars. Fortunately that proved not to be the case, and on further reading our timeline story was revealed to be about a computerized farming device.

The OpenAg Food Computer  from the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative bills itself as:

“a controlled-environment agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber”

It takes the form of a tabletop enclosure in which so-called climate recipes to replicate different conditions for plant growth can be tested. It’s probably fair to say that in this most basic form it is more of an educational device than one for full-scale food production, though they are applying the same technologies at a much greater scale. Their so-called “Food servers” are banks of OpenAg environments in freight containers, which definitely could be used to provide viable quantities of produce.

The good news is that the project is open source, and their latest story is that they have released version 2.0(alpha) of the device. If you are interested, you can read the documentation, and find all the resources you need to build one on their GitHub repository. They page linked above has a video that’s very much of the slick PR variety rather than the nuts-and-bolts, so we’ve sought out their build video for you below the break instead. Continue reading “OpenAg Is A Personal Food Computer”