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Tech, Environmentalism And Agriculture Converge For iFARM

Michael Samuels


A big part of farming and conservation is finding creative solutions on a budget.

If you were walking around Tuckaway Farm in Lee this past weekend, you might have overheard something like this: “The big advance in the last couple of days was that I found out that I can fit a RadioShack AA battery holder through the mouth of a water bottle,” says Don Blair. “I was so excited.”

Blair has been working on something called the riffle, a water pollution monitor that floats on the surface in a plain old recycled plastic bottle.

He was in good company at the iFARM (“imaging For Agriculture Research And Management”) event. For the last three years, engineers, environmentalists, programmers and farmers have gathered to come up with – and share – creative, tech-based hardware and software solutions to common agricultural and environmental problems. Two open-source communities, Farm Hack and Public Lab, put on the event.

Farm Hack’s board president is Dorn Cox, and Tuckaway is his family farm. For him, hosting the event was obvious. “A farm like this is a logical place to be doing that kind of work,” he says.

The location adds a special energy to all of the participants’ projects, agrees Jeff Warren with Public Lab. “We just had a meeting about websites in the middle of a field,” he says (noting that the field is currently rigged up with WiFi), “but the needs and the issues that we're trying to engage with are immediately here.”

The issues at the center of iFARM: how can farmers better monitor both their crops and their runoff, and how can environmentalists better track pollution? 

Credit Michael Samuels
Ned Horning launches one of his UAVs.

Ned Horning is here testing out a small, fairly cheap remote-controlled airplane that carries a basic digital camera. “If there was some disease spreading through, or moisture in the field or something like that, you'd be able to detect it pretty easily,” he says.

Horning is a specialist in remote-sensing based mapping, and his resume includes a stint at NASA. “Most of my work is with satellites,” he explains. “I can take pictures from the ground, I've got pictures from the satellite...”

Traditionally we just had photos from manned aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft, which were quite nice, wonderful pictures but they're expensive, and we don't have access to them as easily as we could like.”

His homemade unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a simple, cheap, Do It Yourself solution, but it's not immune to operator error, as he discovers while flying it around the edges of the field.

For part of the loop, trees blocks his view. “I can't see where I'm going there,” he admits, moments before seeing – and hearing – the UAV lodge itself in the top of a tree.

Within minutes a forklift, a large fishing pole, and a tree-climbing Ned Horning are brought together to get it down.

Horning has also designed something a little more advanced he calls the quadcopter, a small four-propeller helicopter. It can be programmed to follow a predetermined course, taking infrared or super-high-resolution pictures along the way.

Another participant, Chris Fastie, is working on rigs for getting a camera up, stable, and pointed in the right direction on a kite – an energy-free but challenging method of getting aerial images (“If a kite got stuck in a tree, these UAV guys would be all over me,” he jokes).

What you learn at creative, Do It Yourself gatherings like this one is that finding solutions to big problems is all about scoring one small victory after another.

Like poking an unmanned aerial vehicle with a fishing pole until it falls out of a tree – which it eventually does.

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