Wednesday, July 30, 2014

UDC Students Invent Automated Tomato Tower

 Meet Colin Gelinas and Michael Benton. Both are students in the Department of Computer Science of the University of the District of Columbia and have created an automated system that makes it possible to grow vegetables virtually anywhere.

Due in part to the limited growing capacity of urban environments, the two budding inventors created the Tomato Tower, a small, low-cost computing system that anyone could use in their homes. Their invention could potentially allow those in cities or food insecure areas to have access to nutritious, affordable and sustainable food. Not only that, but growing food in one's own homes and neighborhoods would decrease the amount of fresh produce that is transported in a manner which is both unsustainable and that decreases nutritional value of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“This project assumes agriculture as a process that has huge barriers to entry and requires different things, such as being in an urban environment where people don’t have access to land or equipment,” Michael explains. “Whereas, anyone could have this type of unit in their home, which we see as very empowering.”

At the heart of the Tomato Tower is a simple cherry tomato plant, purchased from a garden center. Colin and Michael created an organic soil mix placed with the plant in the container or “tower.” The container is lined with reflective tape to keep the light inside, promoting photosynthesis with the help of LEDs. The unit can be plugged into the wall and the plant can be cared for autonomously with the help of sensors. These sensors record moisture levels, engaging the irrigation process and providing the plant with the needed amount of daily sunlight.

The unit’s power supply was converted from an old desktop computer. Some of the materials like electrical outlets were even found in the dumpster, or what Colin describes as “cannibalizing different items.” 

“It’s one of our goals to salvage and reuse as much as we could for this project,” says Colin.
“It’s part of our belief about our inventions. Ideally, this would be done with all found items,” Michael chimes in.

Data collected by the sensors is automatically published online, meaning anyone can log into the website to monitor progress remotely. It may sound fancy, but the single-board microcontroller and mini computer are both under $30 each, making the Tomato Tower a budget friendly option for those who lack outdoor space for growing.

“All you really need is access to power and a couple square feet of space,” says Colin.

Genius, right? I’m sure you’re wondering how they came up with the idea for this project. Well, Colin is from New Hampshire and Michael is from Iowa, which is from where their agricultural interest stems. Coupled with their interest in sustainability and their ingenuity, the Tomato Tower is surely just the start of their bright future!

In a sign of the times, the Tomato Tower is on Twitter!

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