AutoMicroFarm Blog
December Update

We AutoMicroFarmers have gone a month without any updates. However, we had a rather  significant event occur that we could not talk about until now.

The fact is, we got invited to Y Combinator for an interview, and spent the two weeks leading up to the interview preparing as much as we could. (Special thanks to AnyVivo, ViaCycle, and Double Robotics for giving us advice when we cold-emailed them.) We thought the interview, which occurred on December 1st, went really well; we didn’t really have any questions catch us off-guard.

However, a few hours after the interview, we got the following email from a YC partner:

I’m sorry to say we decided not to fund you. We liked you guys and were impressed with your ambitious ideas for aquaponics. In the end, it was difficult for us to see how this product would generate the kind of growth startup investors are looking for. We would not want want to dissuade you from pursuing the idea however, and think something like this could be quite effective on a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter.

We can see where YC is coming from. After all, there are currently several tens of thousands of aquapons in the US [1], and in the near future, we hope to be able to sell that number of AutoMicroFarm products annually. Thus, we hope to single-handedly, as it were, expand the aquaponics market by offering convenient, inexpensive, easy-to-use, and eventually automated aquaponics systems. Perhaps that’s a bit too naive and ambitious…

However, we genuinely believe that if we can accomplish our objectives and offer systems that are both high-quality and inexpensive, every kitchen would benefit from an AutoNanoFarm, and every back yard from an AutoMicroFarm. That’s what we want to see: an AutoNanoFarm in every kitchen, and an AutoMicroFarm in every back yard [2]. 

We definitely plan to run a kickstarter campaign in the near future. However, before that occurs, we would like to custom-build several (perhaps up to ten) AutoNanoFarms, and have interested customers in the Triangle, NC area buy them. To those customers, we offer free and unlimited support and troubleshooting, in exchange for extensive feedback about our product. The things we will learn from such an initial effort will help us achieve the high quality that we need.

Please let us know if you’re interested in being a trial user of the AutoNanoFarm, and you reside in the triangle. We would love to work with you!


1. This is our rough estimate based on several facts we were able to find online. If anyone has a more accurate or precise number, please let us know.

2. Or at least, in every third kitchen and back yard :).

Announcing a new AutoMicroFarm feature: Inserts

TL;DR: To make maintaining and changing things in an AutoMicroFarm easier and more convenient, we’ve come up with a concept of inserts. We need your suggestions on how to best prototype and manufacture them. We would love to hear from you!

Although aquaponic systems are very easy to use to compared to gardening, one of the few things we found to be the really inconvenient from our barrel-ponics prototype is maintaining the vegetable bed (or containers). For example, tomato plants have very extensive root systems that tend to dominate the media bed, and start growing into the siphon/outlet area (something we found out first-hand). Also, we’re sure many of the first AutoMicroFarm customers will want to experiment with different setups and conditions. For this reason, we want to make sure that our aquaponics systems are as easy to use, maintain, re-configure and change as possible.

The solution that we’ve come up with both on our own, and in discussion with other aquaponics experts, is to use inserts. Think planting baskets used with aquatic plants (Figure 1 below), but uniquely suited for an aquaponic system.

Figure 2 below depicts the side view of the inserts, each consisting of a support structure and a space for the media. We have examples of very little media, on the left; progressively less media space in the middle; and where all of the space is taken by the media, on the right (the example on the right is functionally identical to the planting basket above, but bigger). Of course, more space configurations are possible. In all cases, the insert walls will have holes to let the roots grow out of the media into the open space; the holes will be small enough to prevent the media from falling out. Also, the tops of the containers will touch to prevent light from reaching the plant roots, which causes undesirable changes in most plants.
The bottom half of Figure 2 above shows the same three inserts in a container, with the middle inserts taken out. Each insert will have a support structure strong enough to hold the media and the plants, and handles (not shown in the figures above). We’re in the process of designing these inserts. The overall dimensions will tentatively be 12” H x 16” W x 16” L (30cm H x 40cm W x 40cm L). We have also considered smaller widths and lengths, including 12” (30cm) and 8” (20cm). Once we start with dwarf/pseudo-bonsai fruit trees, we may also have bigger inserts than 16”x16”. All these design considerations will be tested and iterated on to find out what works best.

We think there is real value added by incorporating inserts in AutoMicroFarm systems, instead of just filling the container full of media—and not just for the tinkerers. By using inserts in our next product, we will be able to do maintenance on the root system easily by being able to take out an insert and get to the bottom of the root system, doing any trimming if needed. Also, the inherent compartmentalization of each insert will also allow for quick re-planting of new vegetables, fruits and herbs in isolation from the rest of the vegetable bed for testing the best combinations of companion plants. Another benefit of the inserts that we recently realized is the ability to grow root vegetables, easily seeing how the root is doing, and harvesting it if needed.

In the next post on the topic of inserts, we’ll share our work on designing and researching manufacturing options for the inserts and the vegetable bed, and the timeline for doing so.

For now, we have several requests: please suggest any improvements you can think of from the stand-point of convenience and ease of use. If you have aquaponic systems and have any concerns, let us know. Also, if you have experience manufacturing these sorts of things, please give us suggestions on how we can best prototype and manufacture these inserts. We would love to hear from you and collaborate with you on making AutoMicroFarm systems the world’s best aquaponic systems!

The Ending of the Barrel-Ponics Chapter

TL;DR: We are winding down the barrel-ponics proof-of-concept experiment. We achieved 50% of the harvest yield that we had hoped for, in the bountiful periods. But there are a lot of improvements we’ll implement in our second prototype, which will help us come closer to our target.

Below is a graph of yield per week over roughly the last six months. We averaged 50% of what we calculated to be the ideal yield per unit area during the better periods, and about 35% overall.

Barrel-Ponics Yield Graph

Although we did not reach our goal, there were tons of improvements we could have done to increase the yield. First of all, we did not harvest any fish during this time period. We also made the typical rookie mistakes of not waiting for the initial cycle to end, and not measuring the ammonia/nitrite/nitrate levels in the beginning to see what was going on, as mentioned in an earlier blog post. Also, most of the time, we had a lot of empty patches where we could have planted other vegetables. So, in short, our first prototype was nowhere near optimal, and thus we did not see optimal yields.

Another discovery that we made during this time is that our assumption of the amount of food needed to make up 90% of an adult’s diet were way off. Our assumptions might hold for vegetarians or vegans who eat a lot of plant-based foods, but even our family, which probably eats more fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts than the average family in the US, would get all the food we needed from just 50 to 100 square feet (the area we thought 1 to 2 adults would need for 90% of their diet).

Our next steps are to make the next prototype, with the focus on making the system more convenient to change when you want to try something else, or fix when things go wrong. Incidentally, this prototype will be our first AutoNanoFarm prototype. We have some exciting ideas we’re trying out right now and designing into the product, so stay tuned!

Woah there! Thanks for the interest and please help!

This past Wednesday, we got a spike of visitors to the AutoMicroFarm site, and not only that, but over a thousand 1200 people signed up to our mailing list since then. So what is all the excitement about and where did it come from? On Wednesday morning, one of us made an off-hand comment in a post on Hacker News about where AutoMicroFarm ranks on the Yudkowsky Ambition Scale. Perhaps it helped that Mr. Yudkowsky chimed in with appreciation. Within minutes, we had a spike of visitors to our site, including messages about how excited the new visitors are about our product and what we are doing.

As a response to all of the traffic, we are updating our website for easier access to information about AutoMicroFarm. We are very excited about the enthusiasm of the subscribers to AutoMicroFarm. We are posting up a quick one-minute survey for you to take, so we have a little more information on where to focus our energy. 

We are very close to releasing our initial design for the AutoNanoFarm, our first product (note the Nano, not Micro). For those that are into manufacturing, we are eager to hear from you with advice on our design (especially the manufacturability of the injection-molded parts). As we start solidifying the first iteration of the design, we would love to contact potential manufacturing partners to create both the prototypes, and eventually the mass production of the parts.

Thanks again, and keep in touch!

The AutoMicroFarmers

AutoNanoFarm

About a month back, we at AutoMicroFarm, had an idea of creating a smaller version of our current product. If you are or have ever been a renter, you will know exactly how this can benefit you.  Even if you own your own home, a small version that can comfortably fit in or near the kitchen provides a lot of benefits, as we will discuss below. The product’s working name for now is AutoNanoFarm. AutoNanoFarm will take up only a small space in a corner of you kitchen, and can be used as one or more of the following:

  • Living spice rack,
  • Vegetables that don’t need a lot of light,
  • Specialty vegetables,
  • Flowers or any other plant of your choosing.

This product will be a smaller and cheaper version of the full scale AutoMicroFarm. The advantages from this product are many. This product will be great for someone just starting out and trying out the idea of aquaponic systems. It can be easily tucked away in a corner without taking up much room. It can be used as a centerpiece with decorative fish in the open fish tank as seen from the pictures below.

This product will allow you to reach over for a fresh tomato, basil, or any other spices, and allow you directly cut up your spices/fruits/vegetables off the “vine” into your freshly hand made meal. You can’t get much better than that!

Side Rendering of the AutoNanoFarm:

Isometric Rendering of a prototype “AutoNanoFarm”:

 

Let us know if this product is something that interests you by leaving your email on our main website (AutoMicroFarm), and commenting below.

Progress: July 2012

It has been a while since we posted a progress report. We finally have a good balance of fish and plants in our system. Sixteen blue gill are very active and alive which is a great sign! The plants are also doing well, but there is a lot of room for improvement. We recently harvested the iceberg lettuce, and we continuously harvest tomatoes and cucumbers. Tomatoes and cucumbers are definitely good vegetables for the AutoMicroFarm, if you’re focused on high yield. We will not, however, plant more iceberg lettuce due to a much lower output with a large space requirement. Below are some progress pictures:  

Tomatoes and Cucumbers (1) plant each.

Fish: (16) Blue Gill

Harvest of Lettuce.

The AutoMicroFarm Vision

Recently, I saw a tweet that fit in perfectly with this post that we’ve been writing:

It’s 2017, and your startup is wildly successful. How is the world different?

Well, Jason, we’re glad you asked, because boy do we have a story for you.

By 2017, we hope that a sizable percentage of rural, suburban, and even urban houses with a bit of space or a refurbished roof have AutoMicroFarm systems (or something similar). And, these systems are providing the vast majority—up to 90%—of healthy, delicious, and organic food for their households. We’ve made three conceptual sketches of what AutoMicroFarm products might look like integrated with houses. Each drawing assumes a household size of four adults. Of course, if there are more or less people, the number of systems would be scaled accordingly.

The first concept is a rural home, where the relatively large amount of land allows the system to be housed in a stand-alone enclosure.

 

The second concept home is in a suburban location where the attached enclosure contains the AutoMicroFarm systems (this works equally well for rural households). In fact, this concept is probably the most favorable of the three, since it puts the growing food literally a few feet from the table, yet is simpler than a rooftop system, shown in the last concept.

The last concept shows the AutoMicroFarm systems on the roof above the garage; although they could have just as easily been placed elsewhere on the roof. This concept is for homes that have very little land, and the 400-500 square feet that receive the needed amount of direct sunlight are not to be found elsewhere.

Below is a rendering of one AutoMicroFarm unit, large enough (~50 square feet growing space) to provide 90% of the food for one adult. Please keep in mind that this is a concept rendering; no plumbing, pumps, siphons, etc. are shown and the first prototype (not to mention the final product) will look a lot different.

Update: you can view higher-resolution images at our g+ page here.

We’re making nice progress on our proof-of-concept prototype, as can be seen from the other blog posts, and are starting to design our first “real” prototype, now that we have some ideas on how to make a convenient, easy-to-set-up, and easy-to-maintain aquaponics system. We are as committed to open-sourcing as ever, and will post designs for download as soon as we feel we have something useful.

But more importantly, we would like to validate our market. One way we are doing that is chatting with early adopters about their pain points and solutions they use to work around them. If you feel you are in this category of aquapons or gardeners, please contact us (just enter your email at our main page) and we’ll set up a time to chat on skype or google hangout.

Progress: April 2012
Here are some pictures of our prototype progress over the last few months . The pictures below show the plants at several stages.

Right before the second harvest.

First prototype of AutoMicroFarm. 

The purpose of our first prototype is to test our hypothesis that an aquaponics system can achieve a harvest yield of 50 ~ 100 kg/m^2 annually from the system. It was a relatively quick build, which we have a lot of learning experiences from. One of the biggest things we learned was that any changes to barrel-ponics proved to be more trouble than they were worth. Our next prototype will be modularized and built so we could make changes on the fly and test out different ideas without too much trouble. Below I wanted to summarize in a few points our progress and experiences (good and bad) of the first prototype. 

  • Infrequent water chemical measurements led to a false confidence that our system was cycled properly. (This paper talks about cycling the system, otherwise known as starting a biofilter). This wasn’t the case, and as the system cycled with the fish, it led to fishkill… typical newbie mistake, don’t do that at home kids!
  • Low temperatures made the first harvest very small: took 3 months to achieve 130g.
  • As soon as the temperatures went up, in two weeks, the harvest went up to 240g in just ONE vegetable bed.
  • After enjoying several high-yield weeks, the nitrates went down, as the now fishless system finished cycling and the plants took up the nitrates; and consequently the yield went down.
  • We bought  and caught more fish to get the cycle working again. We had a few more fish die; we’re working on figuring out what happened there (it wasn’t the nitrogen getting out of balance this time).
In conclusion, we learned some very important and fundamental facts from our experiences. Temperature and nutrients play a very important role in food production, and the two conditions must be right for a high yield outcome. When we had a lot of nitrates, but temperatures were low, we had a low yield harvest. As soon as the temperatures went up, our production rate exponentially increased. When our nitrates started running low, while the temperatures remained at optimum conditions, our yields fell back down. Armed with this information, we are now trying for find the right equilibrium between the amount of fish and vegetable production to keep AutoMicroFarm at an optimal production rate to  produce high yields from our plant (and eventually fish, as they mature).
We’ll be sharing more soon!
The Essence of AutoMicroFarm

We’ve been working on our elevator pitch for AutoMicroFarm; this is what we’ve come up with.

AutoMicroFarm is solar panels for your food: an automated farm system that enables gardeners to grow 90% of their food with a system that replaces time, effort, and agricultural expertise with design, technology, and software.

Key Features

  • Grow 90% of your food (organic vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, and beans) in an area the size of a two-car garage.
  • Spend significantly less time than traditional gardening.
  • Save 90% of your current grocery costs with a system that pays for itself within two years.

Technical details

AutoMicroFarm  is an automated, open-source aquaponic system. We are using the WikiSpeed extreme manufacturing model to quickly iterate to an optimum solution, while exploring other ideas as we come up with them.

Be in Control of Your Food

Recently, I saw Food, Inc., a documentary film that brings up concerns with our food growth. The health and safety concerns brought up by the documentary about how our food is really grown, made an impact on me to make a change. A change where I would be in control of what I ate. In today’s world growing our food has dramatically changed and resulted more about business and making a large profit with little attention to health and safety concerns. The food industry is monopolized by huge multinational corporations that genetically modify the food to increase quantity.

At AutoMicroFarm, we would like to change the food you consume to a healthier option. You’re in control of what you eat by growing it yourself and controlling the environment condition without the sweat of a constant gardener. AutoMicroFarm is a easy process of growing your food that will be organic and fresh right out of your own back yard to the kitchen. Concern about yard space? Don’t be alarmed as AutoMicroFarm will not need much space to grow your food.

AutoMicroFarm uses an already known and tested method known as aquaponics. This is why we are here. We are here to offer an open-source aquaponics solution to the public. 

Continue to follow our blog to see the results of our experience with building the AutoMicroFarm, as well as plans, designs, instructions, and eventually orders for setting up your own AutoMicroFarm.