OpenAg is transforming four shipping containers into Mars-worthy flavor ecology and textiles research platforms. As co-lead engineer for the project, I'm designing and building out the Food Servers' mechanical infrastructure—custom light panels, water distribution systems, and hydroponic hardware integration, among other components.
What does it take to turn a shipping container into a robotic farm? Quite a lot, it turns out. Our shipping containers have received custom modifications to their architectural structure, HVAC system, and electrical boards. These modifications allow our research team to program and implement "enviornment recipes"—scheduled regiments for environmental variables including air temperature, humidity, water temperature, fertilizer concentration, photoperiod, spectrum, and a handful of others.
Our HVAC modification re-routes the shipping containers air supply and return to alleviate vertical and horizontal air temperature gradients within the environment. Our team was able to reduce the floor-to-ceiling temperature delta from 12C to under 3C. The hardware modification works by rerouting the supply as high pressure across the length of the environmet, and returning at floor-level. By focusing on pressure, we resolved our temperature issues.
Pre-HVAC Modification Analysis — ∆12ºC vertical temperature gradient
Post-HVAC Modification Analysis — ∆3ºC vertical temperature gradient
The OpenAg Food Servers™ are all about modularity. We've designed their interiors to have optimal flexibility while achieving the maximum propogation footprint per square-area. For this, we've implemented a 12-rack design. Mirrored across a central walking aisle, six racks populate both container walls, each with up to three 2x4' grow layers. That's all to say that I can grow and test up to 140 plant individuals in one rack, and nearly 1,700 plant individuals in a single Food Server™. How will an increasingly urban world feed itself? This is part of the answer.
Each rack is outfitted with hits own discrete plant propogation system. I've plumbed and built-out the systems rack modules to receive a range of plant prop systems: shallow-water culture, nutrient film channel, or aquaponics. The system itself is on its third iteration, with facilitative features like quick-disconnection plumbing, flow-rate monitoring, and easy drain and fill ports.
OpenAg Food Server™ v2.0 is an evolution of version 1.0, previously located at MIT Media Lab. Our team has learned from this original design, integrating novel solutions to solve prior challenges. OpenAg Food Server™ v2.0 sees big enhancements in its mechanical design, automation, and sensor integration. Above, a shot I took with Tom in 2015.
Upon completing the build, maintaining healthy plants and high quality data from four robotic farms is its own project. I've developed intelligent spreadsheet tracking tools to help our team keep track of all-things-plants. This particular tool, "server_map," provides a dashboard for plant count, location, time of harvest, and other overhead metadata about our horticulutural operations.