Intergalactic Plant Robots

Students from University of Colorado Boulder shape the way for space botany

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© 2017 NASA

Students at the University of Colorado Boulder are developing the technology to garden in deep space. The students are engineering robots that will tend gardens and grow fruits and vegetables in a self-sustaining habitat.

NASA’s Tracy Gill, technology strategy manager supports the effort, “We're hoping to take advantage of what these and other students are developing and use it in future space missions. This program is an opportunity to engage university teams in helping us develop new concepts."

The University team entered in the eXploration HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, which is a university-level project that engages students in science, technology, engineering and math. The project then links students’ ideas to senior and graduate level ventures so as to create a beta or prototype products to engage real life with. The Colorado students titled their proposal “Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces”. The idea is that pants should be able to grow anywhere in space, rather than in a specific area designated. They then presented their project on June 23 to NASA’s Kennedy Space Station Processing Facility who are already developing a Distributed Remotely Operated Plant Production System (DROPPS) which would produce edible plants for long term space missions.

The creators behind “Plants Anywhere” are hoping that robots can manage to do the minial tasks so that astronauts are able to keep their focus on other areas. The rover, named ROGR, or Remotely Operated Gardening Rover, would autonomously tend to the plants around the shuttle. The plants themselves will be in SmartPots, or SPOTS, which is a “small, custom-designed hydroponic growth chamber with computerized systems to monitor the vegetation's progress. Each has its own sensor run by an embedded computer”, NASA reports.

The robots and pots would harmonize, so that the SPOTS can monitor the plant’s fruit or vegetable soil humidity and watering requests. They will also be able to monitor air and water temperature, lighting by LEDs, as well as humidity, nutrient levels and pH. The SPOT monitors its own plant and then designates ROGR to come around and perform necessary maintenance.

NASA has since selected seven projects from six different universities for the 2013-2014 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge.