by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 24 December 2018
Rory Aronson came into the Fellowship in 2014 to work on FarmBot, a scalable, precision farming machine, built on open source principles and equipped with supporting software.
This was an idea that promised to be part of the solution to the problems of quality, scarcity and security of food. With corporations enjoying increasing control over our food supplies and the potential damage from climate change on crops of the future, society needs solutions. FarmBot has the potential to enable and free people to grow their own food at a local level and offer them more control over their diets.
While Rory’s Fellowship lasted for one year, FarmBot is now showing signs of making a significant impact around the globe. This is Rory’s story, and how FarmBot came about…
Rory Aronson studied mechanical engineering at school and has always had a keen interest in learning about food production. These combined concerns led him to take an organic agriculture class, during which he remembers a particularly inspiring talk on tractor technology by a local farmer.
The farmer had installed a camera and computer vision system on his vehicle, enabling him to take photos of plants and swill. It could even detect the difference between lettuce and weeds, and once each plant’s identity was established, the farmer could till the land and twist the weeds under the soil, without damaging the plants.
“At the time I was trying to grow my own garden at home,’ recalls Rory. “All I had was a little hand shovel and a hoe - where’s that kind of technology for my back garden? In fact, where is any technology for my back garden? There isn’t any.”
Keen to develop this idea of backyard technology, Rory sought inspiration from his hobby of 3D printing, CNC routers and laser cutters, and considered adapting them to the kind of machines and devices that already exist for farming.
“I started working on it, and that’s where FarmBot came from,” he explains. “Instead of extruding plastic or cutting something, the idea of FarmBot is to plant seeds and water and measure soil properties - all computer controlled.
“These machines could be made affordable enough and modular enough so that people have them in their front yards, backyard, greenhouses and rooftops - and they could grow a variety of crops. All in the same area - all automated.”
A few years went by while Rory finished school, and then began serious work on the project in his garage. He built a prototype, made a video and wrote a 50-page white paper that he published online. It exploded - in the best possible way.
“The paper was shared everywhere.” he smiles. “Reddit, Hacker News, Facebook, Twitter - and people started getting in touch.
“I’d made it completely open source, in the spirit of the 3D printing community and also in the spirit of providing a fundamental technology. Everyone needs to eat, and any technology that helps people grow their own food and eat should be shared - it’s the right thing to do.”
Another benefit of using open source is that if you have a good idea, you will find plenty of help in the worldwide community. Rory attracted the interest from the right people after releasing the white paper, and almost straight away could begin the process of building a team. And eventually, you may even find a different kind of help.
“I was browsing around the Open Source Ecology wiki.” remembers Rory. “That’s Marcin Jakubowski’s organisation.
“His project was an inspiration,” he says. “It was notable open source hardware project at the time, so I was looking around to see how they were documenting stuff, what was working for them, what doesn’t and what kind of progress were they making.
“I was really deep in their wiki, clicking every single link that I could, and eventually saw they were funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation. I saw the Fellows were all working in open source, and the Foundation was a mover and shaker in this whole space in terms of their funding model - I just thought it was perfect.”
Rory’s application was eye catching in scope, big vision and also in its technical grounding. The Fellowship is about giving early stage ideas an opportunity to flourish, and open hardware was an area the Foundation had yet to test to its limits. Although he didn’t have a company at the time, Rory displayed imagination and new ways of thinking and practicing in the space.
“When I first got the Fellowship, it was an incredible boost to the project,” says Rory. “I had another job and only working on FarmBot in my spare time, so it was a pivotal moment. We had some money and people that believed in us, and a growing network of people that can help us achieve what we want to achieve.
“Through the Fellowship I was able to dedicate myself full time on FarmBot for that year, and then use my savings for about a year after that. That was huge. That essentially brought us to the point where the tech was developed enough to launch it to the public - launching the product, and the business.
“Without the Foundation, I would still be in my garage slowly tinkering on this stuff, chipping away at it as time permitted.”
But the money wasn’t everything. As a young man fresh out of college, Rory found the Fellowship to be an inspiring and useful experience. He had the opportunity to spend time with Fellows and Alum who had spent entire careers working in open source, and their experiences and advice on many of the similar challenges they had faced proved invaluable.
“I was able to connect with bright minds in the open source world and talk shop,” he says. “We would share experiences, challenges and brainstorm ideas with each other. These are the people who are going through similar challenges.
“Even across different fields, open source has its own set of challenges that are similar across every industry. It was so helpful to talk about that and just be inspired by all these other people. It was a big highlight.”
Rory’s Fellowship had significant objectives. FarmBot needed to be built as an open-source, scalable automated precision farming machine and software package.
The other part of the mission was to grow a community that produces free and open-source hardware plans, software, data, and documentation giving everyone an opportunity to build and operate a farming machine. Expectations were high - as it is with all Shuttleworth Fellows - but, perhaps, too high.
“Things were very exciting for me,” recalls Rory. “I was happy. Any progress was progress to me, and compared to a year before we were moving quickly. Over a two or three year period we built nine prototypes - that’s one every couple of months. I thought it was pretty fast.
“But I think from the Shuttleworth perspective there was a bit of a letdown in that we didn’t get to Point B faster.
“The Foundation was always pushing for results, and some kind of insight, knowledge or progress. I wanted to deliver those results but found it slower going than expected. I think it was partly being young, lofty and excited, but when it came down to putting pen to paper things took longer to develop - especially in the software realm.
“I don’t write software so I was dependent on co founders, team members and volunteers to help develop software for the whole concept. So…I found it difficult to create deliverables or reach milestones in a manner or a timeline that the Foundation was happy with.”
“It was a little bit disappointing and took some wind out my sails. I was trying really hard and we are making progress, but felt it wasn’t good enough.
“Despite that, there was still a lot of support. And the one-year funding was enough to get me to a critical point in project, which was turning it into a business and being able to get the product into the hands of a ton of people.”
Rory continues to work on FarmBot and since his Fellowship the team have made impressive progress in creating demand and interest - as well as delivering actual units into the hands of a growing number of customers.
“Our Facebook videos have been shared over 200 million times,” smiles Rory. “We put FarmBot on sale and ended up accepting preorders for over a million dollars in our first two months.
“We’ve refined the hardware some more, turned from project into a real company, and orders keep rolling in. We are a small company that is still growing and 100 percent committed to open source.
“We have a lot of plans moving forward to potentially refine the hardware and software to be more consumerized. We’re a few years away, but we have this growing support base of customers and our team is growing and we have more working capital these days to really move towards that vision. It’s an exciting time.”
Today, Rory Aronson is in a good place. His Shuttleworth-funded FarmBot project receives orders from all over the world, and has just finished its latest manufacturing run of 500 scalable, open source, automated precision farming machines, complete with supporting software.
“It’s our biggest order yet,” he says. “But we have a lot of plans to move things forward. At the moment it’s very much a maker/hacker/very involved project. It requires 30-plus hours of assembly time, it needs some technical knowhow and a somewhat tedious configuration of software.
“We are working towards hardware that is more plug and play,” he continues. “It comes pre assembled so it’s easy and fast to set up. And software that is smart and has a lot of data behind the scenes is powering it to make decisions for you.
“You buy it for a thousand bucks, and you can pick it up locally or online. You install it in about an hour and hook it up to the Internet. Plug it in, hook up the hose, pour in some seeds, then configure it in about ten minutes. FarmBot does the rest, and text or emails you when the tomatoes are ripe.
“What you are after with a washing machine is clean clothes. What you want from FarmBot is fresh food in your backyard with no pesticides.”
The Shuttleworth Foundation is delighted to see FarmBot making such progress. At the time of Rory’s year-long Fellowship between 2014 and 2015, food quality and security was a growing concern worldwide - and the situation has not improved. If - or when - FarmBot is a success, making food at a local level will become easy, common and offer an alternative to the increasingly thin gruel of corporate controlled sustenance.