Hydroponics, the growing of plants directly in water in a controlled environment, has been practiced for several decades. However, what has not been accessible to most growers is a scientific look behind these conditions and the effects it has on their plantsʼ growth. The commoditization of the data and the tools to evaluate it is the next step required in bringing agriculture into the 21st century.
Reaching this goal is only possible if the technical overhead is taken out of the equation for the average grower so that they can focus on what counts, their plants. Similar to the rise of USB with its plug-n-play and the network ubiquity provided by WiFi and mobile data, any solution must come with a similar convenience. A viable solution can not expect users to possess the technical know-how to flash a microcontroller, much less write a line of C code. Consumers expect a product that can be plugged into a power socket, and after a minimal introduction have a functional system at their fingertips.
The solutions mentioned above each had a rocky start. Plug-n-play was dubbed “plug-n-pray” and WiFi only reached its prime time after the widespread adoption of smartphones. Luckily, enthusiasts help smooth out a new technologyʼs rough edges. This is why the aim of providing a solution for monitoring and evaluating plant growth in hydroponic systems will target the hackers and makers before moving to a broader audience.
Nonetheless, providing a minimal yet ready to go system is essential to engaging with these early adopters. The key is creating limited scenarios that show the systemʼs core competence and allow the adoptersʼ imagination to fill in the gaps. This is the first step in convincing the first set of users to set up their own systems and subsequently building on that base.
In future versions, users would be able to enter their constraints and needs into a recommender system. Constraints could be defined in terms of available space, maximum power expenditure, and minimal time to operate/maintain, while needs would be expressed in terms of desired yield of specific crops. The system would output potential system solutions that best fulfill a user’s needs within their respective constraints.
We need early adopters to design and implement open systems and expand the platform, all the while contributing to a growing knowledge base of data about hydroponic system design, construction techniques, commercial accessibility and patterns of operation. Wide-scale commercial adoption can occur when the technology becomes as easy to size, order and operate as their refrigerator.
From a technical standpoint the approach follows a system that uses WiFi to minimize the cabling requirements. Power sockets are all that is required to get going. On the computing side, starting the system with a RaspberryPi that provides the systemʼs base functionality in a standalone system is an important choice in keeping the minimum requirements low. Connected to it, in the minimal configuration, is simply a temperature sensor. The data collected by the sensor is then uploaded to a cloud database, making the data accessible to all interested parties.
The projectʼs software has already reached the prototype stage. This means that the main focus going forward is making the initial setup as painless as possible. Currently this consists of connecting the Raspberry Pi to computer peripherals Connecting to a WiFi network Placing the temperature sensor in the desired location Logging onto the live data feed service Despite this setupʼs limited nature, it provides a look into the systemʼs future. The addition of sensors encompasses everything from light to pH measurements, from biomass to humidity. The standalone nature is readily extended to a distributed network where RaspberryPi is joining the network automatically register themselves and require zero configuration. A system where the data from growers all over the world combine to form a unified science team.