Currently Happening on Campus: Say Hello to Ethnorobotanics

Written by Marc St Pierre, one of the current members of the three-person Ethnorobotanics crew, alongside engineer, Tomoe Yoshihara, and developer, Tim Kong.

Please allow us to introduce ourselves. We are the SFU Arduino Club - the guys who are working to help build the sustainable gardens of the future, complete with the latest in IOT (Internet of Things) and Solar technology. We call this little project Ethnorobotanics - an automated, web accessible, plant watering device for the Embark Sustainability Learning Gardens. And we’re excited to announce that our Version 5 alpha will be in the ground, ready for testing over the 2016 growing season. Hooray!

A diseased plant from the learning gardens

Food and water security are important considerations in the contemporary urban landscape. It’s not enough to find new sources to satisfy the growing need of an increasing population; that’s not a smart way of investing in the future. A true smart solution means engineering smart systems to make better use of the resources we already have. Innovating towards efficiency reigns king in the quest to create a sustainable future, and Ethnorobotanics has a part to play. 

The dream is simple, we want to grow food, and we want to use the least amount of resources in order to make it happen. Working with Pablo Vimos, our Embark gardening expert, we are creating a system that only waters plants when they need it to prevent overwatering. It can potentially detect when the plants in the Learning Gardens are susceptible to disease, and even when the soil needs replacing. The system itself is solar powered, and it makes use of the plentiful amounts of rain on burnaby campus so it's totally renewable!

The story of Ethnorobotanics began last year, when we developed the idea for an IOT auto-irrigation device at a UBC hackathon competition. With a proof of concept and a minimum viable product under our belt, we partnered with Embark and started developing a larger, more robust, system. Conceived for gardeners to help monitor and take care of their plants, Ethnorobotanics will be a valuable tool in helping new volunteers learn about botany in ways that fit within their busy time schedules.

Ethnorobotanics end user interface (mockup)

Fast forwarding to last month:

We were happily underway constructing our 5th iteration, creatively titled ‘The Mace’. This was going to be the big one, the Alpha, as it’s called. It’s the one that we will test, for the first time, in the real-world setting of the Sustainable Learning Gardens.

It’s not easy building a prototype. There's an endless stream of decisions, each more finicky, arbitrary, and more subjective than the last. But it gets done, one decision at a time. And when it's done, it's satisfying. But until then, the name of the game is perseverance, with some (un)pleasant surprises mixed in along the way.

‘The Mace’ - exploded view

With any hardware prototype, you’re going to break things. And if you can’t wait a month for cheap, replaceable parts from China, you might find that your emergency trip to the electronics store is going to cost a bit more than you planned for. And that, my friends, is why you always plan well in advance to break things. Don’t order just one, order five instead. And make sure to research those parts before you get out your wallet - a tip for all you budding makers out there in the Ether.

But that’s not the only (un)pleasant thing that might go wrong with your build. Some of the parts you buy, well, they just won’t work the way you want them to. Sometimes they just don’t work at all.  Finding clever workarounds (i.e. hacking) is an important skill to have when running low on time and money. Ghettotyping, as it’s called elsewhere...


Soldering version 5

Once all the troubleshooting and unforeseen problems are dealt with, you breathe a huge sigh of relief as your creation finally turns on, connects to your wifi, and starts giving you data. And I’m happy to say that we’ve just hit that stage in our development: Ethnorobotanics has arrived, and not a moment too soon!

At the risk of sounding cliche, it’s been a learning process for us. But seriously though, hear us out. There’s something special that’s happening here that doesn’t happen often enough on campus. It’s called interdisciplinary collaboration. There are no botanists on our team, we’ve had to reach out and ask Embark for advice on how to build the system they want. In the process, we get to learn that there are different kinds of soil retention properties, or that some plants are prone to disease at high humidity levels. These things are obvious to the average gardener, but for the guys who spend all their time soldering and programming, it’s like learning Calculus in Chinese.

Prototype iterations - just the electronics

We’re grateful to have to opportunity to work on something so cool and innovative with Embark. SFU Arduino Club is all about using technology to help different people do the things they love in their communities.

So if you have a plant that needs watering, want to learn about gardening, or if you like biology and data-science, come to the Learning gardens this spring to see how IOT and Solar technology can play a part in a sustainable world! We literally put the ‘robot’ in Ethno(robot)anics.

Donate Volunteer Find an Event


get updates