Before quick and dirty thesis show

We had a quick and dirty show of all thesis projects at ITP on 28th March. I made a poster describing my thesis project. I chose to use simple illustrations and a very few words to keep it simple. Prototype of the hydroponic system has a bright visual appearance to it because of the LEDs, so I made the poster without any colors and photographs: I made a few quick iterations for how user interaction might look like, and used these printouts to see how one would make meaning out of what they see on the interface.

Looking at why I’m interested in this project, I divided users in tree categories and made corresponding questionnaires:

  1. Users interested in gardening/ farming

Do you like gardening?

Tell me about your prior experience in farming / gardening! Do you have plants in your apartment or workplace?

Tell me how do you take care of those plants. How do you manage to water your plants in your daily schedule?

What do you think of this box (hydroponic system I have)? (Responses I’ve heard so far: It looks attractive, inviting, interesting, quirky-purple, nerdy, scientific)

Why do you think it looks (attractive, inviting, interesting, quirky-purple, nerdy, scientific)? Might need to rephrase it with a better question. Objective is to understand what key aspects they find exciting about it.

Would you like to have this box for yourself? Like, if I offer it to you right now with spinach and lettuce growing in it, would you like to keep it as a gift? (On top of their answer:) I give it to you, and I control it remotely so that you won’t have to worry about readings and gardening routines… But you get to eat the veggies!

2. Users aware of organics/ GMOs/ pesticides/ chemicals

How often do you buy groceries?

How much of leafy greens do you buy? (quantity, quality, frequency)

Where do you buy from- grocery stores? supermarkets? farmers’ markets? (If farmers’ market) why so? (real question: are you concerned about freshness, pesticides, chemicals, time it took for veggies to travel from farms to markets etc?)

Ever considered harvesting veggies yourself?

what were your thoughts/ ideas/ experiences?

3. Makers/ DIY enthusiasts/ kids

Would you call yourself a maker? Do you take interest in DIY projects? Ever clubbed those interests with food? Questions about above two classes

Midterm Feedback

Midterm presentation was a great experience as it brought fresh perspectives from outside ITP and made me work on how to describe my project in just a few minutes.

I received good reviews for slides, visuals, narrowing down the topic to something more specific, measurable and doable, and project planning. This assured that I’m on right track, and motivated me to plan further things.

Criticism/ questions/ suggestions I received were around following areas:

  1. It doesn’t have to be a tech project- there’s a risk of building something non-tech and sprinkling interactivity over it.
  2. Audience: How does it change/ expand with further progress of the project? What would make people use this in their apartments? Will there be different layers for different users? What are you adding to the dialogue of current IoT solutions?
  3. Scale: How much food would you need to produce in it for it to be your primary source of food? Are systems like this actually feasible on large scale?
  4. In a range of problems from tiny ones to critical future challenges, what all does it solve? eg. overpopulation, depletion of resources, unstable weather systems
  5. Minor points: Slides can show a better representation of timeline and users (how user group expands with time)

BASIC HYDROPONIC SYSTEM (CONTD.)

I made further progress this week and assembled the system. First I covered the bin with two layers of duct tape to make it opaque.

Outlined the formation of airstones and airpump tubing with respect to the plants. It took a while, but spending time on initial setup would save a lot of trouble in future phases. This exercise made sure that all plants will get enough air bubbles reaching to their roots.

 

Next I added 2-1-6 NPK FloraGro to the container. I followed the application table and used 4 teaspoons (20ml) chemical for 4gal water, which is the volume of the container.

Next phase needed precision, concentration, and a lot of time. I transferred 4 lettuce, 3 spinach and 1 parsley seedlings to the system. Steps were 1. Loosen the soil, remove the seedling carefully with its roots intact, wash away the soil with lukewarm water till you see clean, white roots. 2. Cut open a rockwool cube and place the seedling in it. One face of the cube has leaves growing out of it, the opposite side of cube has roots growing below. 3. Fill a net cup to an inch with leca clay granules. Place the rockwool cube in it and fill up the cup with more granules.

I used strongest of the seedlings that I could find. The roots were mostly around an inch long, and had very few or no branches. I am curious if this is the right time to transfer a seedling to hydroponic system. If this experiment fails I’ve few more seedlings from the same batch still growing in soil pellets, and maybe after a week I’ll try transferring those once they have stronger roots developed from soil-based model.

Aftermath! The whole process created some mess, and planing it ahead saved me lot of trouble. Loose soil is a quality resource that I moved back to the seedling bin.

I accidentally damaged a couple of seedlings and couldn’t use those any further- so I ate the leaves. Delicious!

DELIVERABLE 1: BASIC HYDROPONIC SYSTEM

I have completed the basic setup for a hydroponic system. Most parts are assembled and while I’m still waiting for a few more from amazon, it is in good shape to get started with.    Following is the list of parts and their current status:

  1. Container and Lid

I used a plastic bin from Stefani’s food systems and biodesign class. It is a white translucent plastic container with 18x13x5 inch inside dimensions. Next it needs to be opaque, I’m planning to use tape/ paint. The lid is custom designed CNC-cut styrofoam sheet with 8 holes for net cups. Each is 3″ diameter. Edge of the sheet is chamfered so it snugly fits on top of the container.   2. Plant cups I ordered 3″ net cups from amazon, these are designed for medium sized hydroponics and aeroponics. With a lip on top, cup fits perfectly in 3″ hole in the styrofoam. Inside a cup there is the plant, supported by a rockwool cube, which is placed in leca granules.   3. Nutrient solution Nutrient solution has N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) nutrients dissolved in pure water, with an air pump constantly bubbling air through the solution. I have three different nutrients from General Hydroponics. Each is designed for different phase of plant growth and has unique N-P-K ratio. Following three are 2-1-6, 0-5-4, and 5-0-1 respectively: The numbers describe percentage of the component. For example 0-5-4 has 0% nitrogen(N), 5% phosphorus(P), and 4% potassium(K). Rest is a combination of secondary elements such as minerals and metals (calcium, copper, iron, cobalt, manganese, zinc etc.) dissolved in water base. I am using a couple of typical air pumps designed for fishbowls. Flow of air constantly stirs the solution preventing the nutrients from settling down in the bottom, and also provides oxygen to the roots. Black tubing provides maximum opacity. I drew some sketches to see how to place the airstones (end unit that produces bubbles) in a formation at the bottom of container. T-shaped connectors provide branching from main tubing line to the airstones. 4. Plants I’ve decided to wait for a few more days before transferring seedlings into the system. The seedlings are growing fast and I can see their progress every day, which is really assuring. For hydroponics the roots need to be further developed to be able to support seedlings without soil.  

FIRST BATCH OF PLANTS

I planted the first batch of seeds on Thursday, Feb 16th. Most of the seeds are organic veggies from Home Depot, and there are a few Johnny Seeds organics that I borrowed from Stefani Bardin. I’m exploring spinach, lettuce, parsley and microgreens for this experiment.

 

Next I used grow pellets from Home Depot. These small discs are a convenient replacement to a pile of loose soil, and are designed for indoor seedlings.

I found a bunch of containers, each for a variety of plants.

Next I opened the netting, loosened the grow medium, and planted seeds in the pellets.

Finally, I watered and labelled the containers. There are four varieties: Organic spinach, lettuce, organic parsley, and microgreens. The microgreens have a harvest cycle of 10-12 days, and I’m planning not to use those for next phase. Other plants- spinach, lettuce and parsley- have a cycle of around 40 days, and I’m planning to build a hydroponic system and transfer these seedlings to it by February end.

HYDROPONIC SYSTEM

In order for a plant to grow and reach its full genetic potential, it is necessary to provide right amount of nutrients, water, and air at the right time. This is the very basis of farming. Hydroponics allows to provide the right proportion of these supplies at the right time, to grow plants indoor without having to worry about large scale infrastructural elements such as land, soil, irrigation and pest control. Simply put, hydroponics is growing plants with gravel, liquid or other medium with added nutrients but without soil. Roots are exposed directly to the nutrients solution, therefore offering a controlled environment in terms of what one feeds to the plant. It is possible to have a precise control over what you feed to the plant, as it is going to get directly absorbed by the roots.

I found this book extremely helpful in understanding the basics of hydroponics: http://www.agriculture.uz/filesarchive/HowToHydroponicsRobert2003.pdf

In general, a hydroponic system looks like this and has following fundamental elements:

[Image source: http://www.growthtechnology.com/growtorial/what-is-hydroponic-growing/]

  1. Container: Contains plants, nutrients solution, and pretty much defines the boundary of the system. It can be as small as a half gallon flask, or as big as 50 liter tank.
  2. Nutrient solution: A water based solution of nutrients, typically NPK (nitrogen- phosphorus- potassium) variant, depending on what kind of plants are grown.
  3. Flow mechanism: This is typically a combination of air pump and excess water outlet, to maintain right amount of water + air reaching the roots.
  4. Plants: Plants grow with their leaves/ stem outside of the container, and their roots growing down inside. Roots are partially immersed into the solution with air bubbling through it, supplying oxygen. Soils is not used at all. Instead the plants are supported by net cups tucked into the lid of the container. Net cup is filled with gravel of perlite or leca, with a water-holding porous element such as rockwool.

There are plenty of variants of this model. All variations require that no outside light reaches inside the container, as it is the best way to prevent growth of algae. Many variations use additional artificial lighting systems that need to be controlled manually, to simulate natural daylight cycle. Typically the plants are grown in cycles of 2 to 3 weeks.

My goal is to construct a basic hydroponic system first, and then make an interactive version of it.

PROJECT SCHEDULE AND DELIVERABLES

I planned my deliverables for thesis as following:

 

The deliverables are planned in alignment with the week-by-week schedule of thesis class. Green cells are concept development, documentation, blogging, writing, & presentations. Blues represent designing, prototyping, development, & fabrication. Yellows are user tests and synthesis of those tests. Following are the three key deliverables for my project:

1. By Feb 28: Development of basic hydroponic system

Deliverable: Basic functioning hydroponic system and first batch of plants. Hydroponic system is one of the popular ways of growing plants indoor. There is plenty of documentation, guidelines, and materials available to achieve this. By February 28th, I plan to have a basic functioning hydroponic system with my first batch of  plants growing in it. This does not involve electronics, scripting or arduino coding; but demands fabrication, prototyping, domain research, and my first ever experimentation with indoor farming. This will allow me to user test and harvest the yield during spring break.

2. By quick and dirty show: Implement feedback mechanism with technology and Interactivity

Deliverable: technology and interactivity implemented into the hydroponic system. Using inputs from user test 01, I’ll determine what level of interactivity is suitable for the project. In the basic system (deliverable 1) user is responsible to manually test and control the supply of air, nutrients, and water. For deliverable 2, my goal is to automate this feedback mechanism using sensors and microcontrollers. Hydroponics are sensitive to external light and environment, therefore it will be helpful to have user interact through sensor readings, rather than opening the system boundaries, observing roots and leaves, or manually switching air/ nutrients supply.

In parallel, I’ll grow second batch of seedlings and transfer those to the interactive system. For quick and dirty show I plan to be ready with plants growing inside this system. I’ll be conducting user test 02 during quick and dirty show.

3. By Apr 11: From user test 02 to Final Working Prototype

Deliverable: Apply changes from user test 02, finish development and detailing. I’ll gather analysis from user test 02 (quick and dirty show) and synthesize a plan of action that’s achievable in next sprint (March 28 to April 11). By April 14th, Along with project summary milestone, I’ll be ready with those changes. This will allow me to have another round, user test 03, before final presentations. For the final presentations and thesis week I plan to be ready with this interactive indoor farm prototype and a yield of fresh greens.

Random thought: I’m running Brooklyn half marathon on 20th May, right after graduation. I love how my 14 weeks training schedule aligns with the thesis deliverables and overall project plan!

By nature, this project has tremendous future scope and possibilities. For example I was initially thinking of redesigns for life on Mars and networked farming, or many people I spoke with had futuristic (and rather fancy) ideas such as growing plants in perfect Martian environment, controlling system remotely with radio waves etc., but to design and develop those bigger ideas I’ll first have to achieve above three deliverables. I intend to leave those achievable-but-not-before-May2017 tweaks for later, beyond the scope of 14 weeks of my thesis project.

Darwin, Plants, & Processed Food

Processed food is outcome of applying chemical and physical means to raw food ingredients in order to improve shelf life and ease of preparation. I came across a range of examples while researching the merits and demerits of raw versus processed food. Some products, like cereals and low-fat milk, are a routine diet for most of the people around us. And then there are some products like soylent, that aim at changing the very definition of food. As I spoke with a few experts and read more about raw vs processed food, I learned that there are pros and cons to both of these:

Merits of processed food like Soylent

  1. Engineered nutritions cater to exactly what human body needs from daily diet, in terms of nutrient contents.
  2. Feasible and faster in fast-paced lifestyle where cooking and eating meals is time consuming.

Demerits of consuming processed food

  1. Contains many antibacterial compounds (e.g., lactoferrin), which is likely one of the main reasons some people experience gastrointestinal upset from drinking processed shakes.
  2. Before entering the markets, these products are mostly tested by their ability to provide nutritional values, not by their potential to cause an illness. We will only know how safe it is to eat these when we observe an illness as a result of consuming these products.
  3. Millions of years of evolution has designed our metabolism in adjusting to and benefitting from microbes. Studies point out that products like soylent may be harmful to microbes in human digestion system, leading to low immunity, making us susceptible to diseases.

There’s a mismatch in what we eat today and how our body is designed over years of evolutionary process. Some argue that even milk is a mismatch, as cows have been around with us only for just tens of thousands of years, which is a very small duration compared to evolution history of humans who were once hunter-gatherers and farmers. Whole foods contain a natural balance of nutrients, a balance that is lost when the food is broken down and one or more of the smaller constituents are removed. There are many aspects of darwinian theory such as competition (biology) and natural selection that make whole foods better than processed ones. I am more keen on how future of food looks when we use technology to grow and harvest whole foods, rather than creating evolutionarily novel food products.

Cornell Box

I made a quick and dirty cardboard prototype of my ‘personal farm’, and this seemingly simple exercise brought up a lot of interaction concerns that I hadn’t thought through before, such as:

  1. How is a user going to get the leaves/ plants out of the box? Is it a door with hinge? Will there be a notification when plants are ready & it’s time to harvest?
  2. What level of granularity does the interaction have? “Set temperature to 25C” vs “Grow spinach”
  3. Details of interface: is it a physical control with knobs and sliders and buttons? Or is it a computer-controlled unit with an on-screen software interface?

The box:

MINDMAP: COMPUTERIZED MICRO-FARMS

Before making a Cornell Box cardboard prototype, I chalked out a mindmap of all the elements this project might have. Like any computerized system built around solving a specific problem, it has a system boundary or scope or limits (and therefore an outside environment that’s not a part of this system), user(s) that operate and benefit from this system, and finally an interface that enables user(s) to operate the system. Environment/ Boundary I could think of several possibilities:

  • A box that contains one or a few plants along with elements essential for growth of plants such as soil, moisture, fertilizers etc.
  • Whole room as the environment, where user inputs will directly affect conditions of an entire room.
  • Entire city as the environment.
  • Portable, tiny objects that can be mounted on plants, or immersed into soil, to let user operate on only a single plant.

Users

  • One vs Many: How many people can control a given system? How many people directly benefit from the system? This leads to following point:
  • Primary vs Secondary user: There may be significant distinction between who grows the food and who benefits from it.
  • What are the needs of the user/ consumer/ producer of system?

Interface

  • With traditional design thinking approach, I thought of a few different interface ideas such as tangible elements (buttons, knobs, sliders) vs concealed ones (software controlled, voice controlled etc.)
  • Within this project and most of my previous ones, there’s an interesting difference of feedback mechanism. Most of my projects had immediate feedback or end results popping right after the user takes certain action. In this one, user’s actions may have immediate feedback acknowledging those inputs, but end result (growth of a plant in user-defined conditions) will take at least a few weeks to be visible.