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.

Using Backscatter Radio for a Soil Sensor Network

With almost 8 billion souls to feed and a changing climate to deal with, there’s never been a better time to field a meaningful “Internet of Agriculture.” But the expansive fields that make industrial-scale agriculture feasible work against the deployment of sensors and actuators because of a lack of infrastructure to power and connect everything. So a low-power radio network for soil moisture sensors is certainly a welcome development.

We can think of a lot of ways that sensors could be powered in the field. Solar comes to mind, since good exposure to the sun is usually a prerequisite for any cropland. But in practice, solar has issues, the prime one being that the plants need the sun more, and will quickly shade out low-profile soil-based sensors.

That’s why [Spyros Daskalakis] eschewed PV for his capacitive soil moisture sensors in favor of a backscatter technique very similar to that used in both the Great Seal Bug and mundane RFID tags alike. The soil sensor switches half of an etched PCB bowtie antenna in and out of a circuit at a frequency proportional to soil moisture. A carrier signal from a separate transmitter is reflected off the alternately loaded and unloaded antenna, picking up subcarriers with a frequency proportional to soil moisture. [Spyros] explains more about the sensor design and his technique for handling multiple sensors in his paper.

We really like the principles [Spyros] leveraged here, and the simplicity of the system. We can’t help but wonder what sort of synergies there are between this project and the 2015 Hackaday Prize-winning Vinduino project.

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Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth

One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.

The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.

While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.

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A Car Stand made of Sand

When the guys at [Practical Engineering] say they have a dirty car stand, they really mean it! They made a block of dirt and sheets of fiberglass as reinforcement material, and the resistance was put to test by using it as a car stand. And yes, the block does the job without collapsing.

An exmple of MSE
A MSE structure. The lateral walls add no strength, they just look nice.

Soil is a naturally unstable material, it relies only on friction for structural stability, but it has a very low shear strength (the resistance of the material’s internal structure to slide against itself). Therefore, as soon as you put some weight, a soil structure fails. The trick is to form a composite by adding layers of a stiff material. Those layers increase the shear strength and you end up with an incredibly strong composite, or ‘mechanically stabilized earth‘ (MSE). You probably drive by some everyday, as in the picture at the right.

Even though the modern form of MSE was due to French engineer Sir Henri Vidal, reinforced soil has been used since the beginnings of human history, in fact, some sections of the Great Wall of China were made using this technique. [Practical Engineering] explanation and demonstration video is very well made, be sure to check it after the break. In case you don’t want to play with dirt next time you need to fix your car, you can always make a 3D printed jack.

Build A Rhizotron: Image The World Beneath Your Feet

The world of the subsoil is a fascinating place. Our whole ecosystem depends on its variety of fungus, bacteria and detritivore creatures that break down and decay dead matter and provide the nutrients to sustain plants that bring in the energy from the sun.

It’s easy enough to study what is happening beneath the surface, just reach for a trowel. But of course, that’s an imperfect technique, for it only gives a picture of a world you have destroyed, and then at best only a snapshot.

Fungal hypha growth in action
Fungal hypha growth in action

What if you could image underground, take pictures and video of the decay process and the creatures that are its engine? [Josh Williams] was curious how this could be achieved, so after early experiments with buried webcams proved unimpressive he created the Rhizotron. A flatbed scanner waterproofed for burial with plenty of silicone, and driven by a Raspberry Pi. The result was particularly successful, and though he has lost several scanners to water ingress he has collected some impressive imagery which he has posted on the project’s blog. Below the break we’ve included one of his videos taken with the scanner in a compost bucket, in which you can see decomposition aplenty, mating millipedes, spreading fungal hyphae and much more.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Open Source Hydroponic Monitoring System

A few months ago, [Adam] was building a controller system for a small hydroponic system he had set up in his basement. Since then, the Hackaday Prize was announced, and given the theme – saving the world one plant at a time – he’s renvisioning his garden control and monitoring system as a Hackaday Prize entry.

While the mechanical and green part of the build is exactly what you would expect from something designed from hardware store parts, the electronics are rather interesting. All the plants in either a hydroponic or dirt-based setup will have their moisture level and PH monitored by a a set of electronics that push data up to the cloud.

The current hardware setup includes a DyIO, a very cool dev platform with 24 digital I/Os and 24 servo outputs, a Raspberry Pi, and a few module boards loaded up with ARM microcontrollers and an ESP8266. [Adam] is hitting all the hardware on this build.

So far, [Adam] has a few boards sent out to a board fab, including an analog sensor module, a digital sensor module. a WiFi module hub, and a few bits and bobs that make integration into an existing garden or hydroponic setup easier. It’s a great project for this year’s Hackaday Prize, and proof that you don’t need to come up with a new build to submit something.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Fully automated watering robot takes a big leap forward toward greenhouse automation


Greenhouse owners might find [David Dorhout]’s latest invention a groundbreaking green revolution! [David]’s Aquarius robot automates the laborious process of precision watering 90,000 square feet of potted plants. Imagine a recliner sized Roomba with a 30 gallon water tank autonomously roaming around your greenhouse performing 24×7 watering chores with absolute perfection. The Aquarius robot can do it all with three easy setups; add lines up and down the aisles on the floor for the robot to follow, set its dial to the size of your pots and maybe add a few soil moisture sensors if you want the perfect amount of water dispensed in each pot. The options include adding soil moisture sensors only between different sized plants letting Aquarius repeat the dispensing level required by the first plant’s moisture sensor for a given series.

After also digging through a pair of forum posts we learned that the bot is controlled by two Parallax propeller chips and has enough autonomous coding to open and close doors, find charging stations, fill its 30 gal water tank when low, and remember exactly where it left off between pit stops. We think dialing in the pot size could easily be eliminated using RFID pot identification tags similar in fashion to the Science Fair Sorting Project. Adjusting for plant and pot size as well as location might easily be automated using a vision system such as the featured Pixy a few weeks back. Finally, here are some featured hardware hacks for soil moisture sensing that could be incorporated into Aquarius to help remotely monitor and attend to just the plants that need attention: [Andy’s] Garden sensors, [Clover’s] Moisture control for a DIY greenhouse, [Ken_S’s] GardenMon(itoring project)

[David Dorhout] has 14 years experience in the agriculture and biotech industry. He has a unique talent applying his mad scientist technology to save the future of mankind as seen with his earlier Prospero robot farmer. You can learn more about Aquarius’s features on Dorhout R&D website or watch the video embedded below.

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