Open Source Company Gives Us A Peek At Financial Innards

Here at Hackaday we are willing to bet that in a universe free of all monetary constraints, many of our readers would leave their day jobs in order to pursue their hardware hobbies full time. Obviously this is only practical for a lucky minority of people (for a wide variety of reasons) but we’re willing to bet that a significant stumbling block is figuring how to do it in the first place. You quit your job, but then what? If more information about starting and sustaining small hardware business’ was available more people would take the plunge to start one. There are software companies with salary transparency but this is only part of the picture and we can’t think of many hardware companies that offer the same. What we really want is to get an image of the entire business end to end; from suppliers to COGS to salary. And we want to see it for hardware.

Years ago the first and second Hackaday Prizes captured an entrant named FarmBot whose goal was to build open source robotic farming equipment to make it easier for anyone to grow their own food. A few successful Kickstarters and years later they’ve been shipped multiple versions of the Genesis and Genesis XL robotic farming system and have a sustainable business! And now they’ve decided to open source their business operations too. Suffice to say, this provides quite an uncommon view into the guts of what makes a small open source hardware business tick. Let’s take a closer look!

There is a wealth of information exposed in the company documentation; it’s as though they took their internal wiki and made it public, which we suppose is exactly what happened. The most interesting part for our readers might be the statistics page that tracks costs and quantities for their products. This is where the magic lives. You can use to it see that so far they’ve sold 124 Genesis XL machines at an average selling price of $3,834.34 for $475,458.30 of revenue (it cost $187,200 to build their run of 200 machines). You can also see that each machine has 1,415 parts and takes about 25 hours to assemble. This page is where the true guts of the business live.

Everything else is here too. Here’s where you can learn about what vendors FarmBot uses use logistics, or power, or web infrastructure monitoring. And this is the page with the infamous salary calculation formulas if you want to guess what you’d make as an employee. Then there’s a bunch of boring but important stuff. Fulfillment processes live here, and the consumables they use to support that fulfillment are listed here (with costs!).

One reason we enjoy open source so much is that it affords a wonderful opportunity for people to learn instead of keeping the important parts of a product or process perpetually under wraps. We’re hoping that documentation like this becomes more prevalent and foster an explosion of small hardware companies to follow it.

The Weedinator Returns

We are delighted to see The Weedinator as an entry for the 2018 Hackaday Prize! Innovations in agriculture are great opportunities to build something to improve our world. [TegwynTwmffat]’s Weedinator is an autonomous, electric platform aimed at small farms to take care of cultivating, tilling, and weeding seedbeds. The cost of this kind of labor can push smaller farms out of sustainability if it has to be done by people.

Greater efficiency in agriculture is traditionally all about multiplying the work a single person can do, and usually takes the form or bigger and heavier equipment that can do more at once and in less time. But with an autonomous robotic platform, the robot doesn’t get tired or bored so it doesn’t matter if the smaller platform needs to make multiple passes to cover a field or accomplish a task. In fact, smaller often means more maneuverable, more manageable, and more energy-efficient when it comes to a small farm.

The Original Weedinator was a contender for the 2017 Hackaday Prize and we’re deeply excited to see it return with an updated design and new people joining their team for 2018. Remember, there’s money set aside to help bootstrap promising concepts and all you really need to get started is an idea, an image, and documentation. There’s no better opportunity to dust off that idea and see if it has legs.

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?

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Farming Implements In 1932”

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.

Continue reading “Submersible Robots Hunt Lice With Lasers”