It’s called Box Farm, and it is literally a farm in a box — an automated hydroponic gardening system that one day might grow vegetables, from seed to harvest, for astronauts during long and arduous missions to far-away planets.
And it was developed by a dozen University of Hawaii at Manoa mechanical engineering students and one biology major as part of a mechanical engineering senior design project.
“I rarely see things that make me go, ‘Wow,’ but this was one of them,” said Kent Kobayashi, associate professor of tropical agriculture and soil sciences in UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
One of the professors who mentored the students, Kobayashi described the effort as ingenious and visionary, a project with potential applications on Earth and in space.
The Box Farm team recently won first place at the Francis J. Rhodes Montgomery innovation competition on campus.
Now, the leaders of the team will take a prototype of their invention to the University of North Dakota for a test-run in the NASA-funded Inflatable Lunar Mars Habitat.
UND is one of the few NASA-supported facilities that study how long-term extraterrestrial missions affect the human body. These tests are conducted in the Mars habitat anywhere from 14 to 30 days.
Included in the habitat is a module containing the mission’s greenhouse. That’s where Box Farm will be tested.
Lead student and project manager Preston Tran said the effort had its doubters.
“We ran into opposition as soon as we proposed it,” Tran recalled. “Some said the proposal was too broad, that too much was going on. They said we should reduce or downscale the project to a single component instead.”
Tran said the team didn’t back off and instead used the criticism as inspiration to prove critics wrong.
Over the last year, the students created a temperature-controlled system that does the farming on its own, using a robotic arm to execute operations such as transplanting and transferring plants.
The 5-foot-wide, 6-foot-tall Box Farm has plant bed containers, LED lighting (to substitute for the sun) and a watering system that also dispenses nutrient solutions.
Image processing and analysis of plant size and health status allows Box Farm to react to the growing needs of plants as sensors relay information to a computer that controls the robotic arm and other systems that aim for precise gardening and faster yields.
Grants and donations covered the $10,000 cost of the prototype.
It was in the summer that Tran interned at NASA Ames Research Center in California. There, he met Pablo de Leon, a veteran NASA scientist and principal investigator who runs the Mars habitat in North Dakota.
From de Leon, Preston learned that astronauts on simulated missions spend too much time tending to plants and growing their own food when they could be doing other things.
The idea of Box Farm’s utility in space was born.
Other project leaders from UH who will be flying to North Dakota are systems integrator and control subsystem lead James Thesken, robotic systems lead Sean Agpaoa and static systems lead Gabor Paczolay, who also designed the Box Farm logo.
The project’s vision, as stated on its website at box-farm.com:
“We see Box Farm as a crucial component of all lunar and Martian missions in the future. We strive to assist Astronauts on their interplanetary endeavors by providing fresh produce and by being the bridge that connects them to Earth across the harrowing emptiness of space.”
But Box Farm’s potential goes beyond space missions and ensuring a steady supply of food for hungry astronauts, Tran says.
The controlled nature of the system’s environment offers scientific applications because researchers have the ability to control parameters of the growing process without fear of infection or contamination.
Box Farm could become a model for greenhouses that operate on their own, helping the agriculture industry cope with labor shortages and an aging population of farmers.
And with Box Farm’s compact and scalable design, future versions might even work in the home, offering a steady supply of fresh vegetables and a degree of food security.
Who knows — someday there could be a Box Farm in every home.
“That’s the dream,” Tran said.