Let FarmBot Seed, Water, and Grow Your Veggies
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Rory Aronson built you a farming robot that helps you seed, water, and care for your vegetables right in your backyard, or, in Aronson’s case, front yard. This week the pre-order starts. You can own one of the first FarmBots. But there is more to it than a nifty machine.
FarmBot came out of an inspiration during an [elective] organic agriculture class when Aronson was studying Mechanical Engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. impactmania spoke with Rory Aronson.
Rory, you are taking preorders in less than a week for FarmBot.
Yes. Just trying to finish up the final video that is going to showcase the project. So you know kind of what FarmBot can do, and what the software does, and kind of where we want to go next, and also a broader overview of why we’re doing this.
Is there a goal set for how many orders you would like to fulfill?
Yeah, I think we’re looking at a goal of 100 FarmBots. That will be a nice manageable size for our team. It’s just three of us, and actually only two of us full-time. One hundred would be a nice, manageable goal, as far as being able to fulfill the orders in a timely manner. And also to kind of get a nice community of people who are going to be working with FarmBot to grow their own food. Ideally they also will help develop the hardware and software further, by kind of being early adopters of this open source technology.
So you’re really looking to maintain a relationship and get feedback from these new growers then?
Yeah, that would be ideal. We’re hoping that all of these people will be excited to obviously use FarmBots for their purposes. But also to contribute back to the community, and say, “Hey, I am using FarmBot in this way and these are my tips and tricks. Hey, I really needed this software feature and I’m willing to help develop it. I can put in five or ten hours to help write the software to allow FarmBot to do some specific thing that I need or want.”
This is six years after you were inspired during an elective Organic Agriculture class at Cal Poly?
I started work on the project three years ago. And yeah, perhaps I had the idea about six years ago, shortly after an Organic Agriculture class that I took.
What has been a surprising learning experience in these six years?
It’s just been exciting to see how people come together when you open up to them. The original step that I took with the project was I wrote the white paper, about 50 pages describing FarmBot. I just put that out online. I said, “Who wants to help with this? I think it’s cool, maybe you do too, maybe we could work together to build this.”
That’s been a really a successful model for this project. I think in general, it’s a successful model across industries. People are excited to work together. And they really feel empowered when you give them part of what you’re working on.
They say, “Wow, this is mine too. Now I feel compelled to work on it as well.”
These other two core team members, were they there from the early beginnings when you wrote that white paper?
Yeah, so they’ve been involved pretty much since probably about a week or two after I published the white paper online. They got wind of the project just online, and through forums or an e-mail or something. They messaged me and said, “Hey, I wanna help out, these are my skills.” And we just started working together.
How did you ensure fit — were there a lot of people and you just somehow filtered these two core members?
To some degree, the right people find me. I’m not really actively seeking out people. They come across the project through their own channels, learn about it. If they’re really motivated, have the time, the interest, and the skills, then they’ll contact me.
Somehow you all three had the same vision on where to take this? Or because it’s open source, it is different from a traditional company?
I laid out quite a specific and well thought-out vision in the white paper. That was the guiding force from the start. When people came on board, it was under the impression that what they’re coming on board for was this fairly well thought-out, thorough description of the project.
Now, of course, we’ve deviated from that over time as we’ve learned things and tried things that did or didn’t work. We’ve changed course a little bit. But more or less, if you reread the white paper today and look at what we have, it’s almost the same. It’s just the specific details that are different.
Now where we go from here, especially once we launch to the public and we grow our community from let’s say a couple of people to maybe a few hundred people, the direction that FarmBot goes is going to be much less in our hands. Because there are going to be so many more people developing FarmBot for their own use cases.
That will be really exciting. It wouldn’t really be a success if only the stuff that I came up with was what was created. It’s gonna be a success when tons of people come up with all sorts of ideas and use cases, and all of those ideas are the very best ones, or the very best ones are implemented.
Even if it’s not a use case that I’m particularly interested in or that I came up with, that’s not as important.
Could you give me an example where you would like to see people take it? What kind of application would you want to see happen?
Sure, so personally and also with my company, we’re looking to, in a long term sense, making Farm Bot a home appliance. So just like everyone has a refrigerator in the house, everyone has a toilet, certain amenities that have just become standard, I would like to see Farm Bot become somewhat of a standard appliance in homes that have the space for it.
That means bringing the cost down and making it much more user friendly. Right now, it is somewhat technical, right? You have to know how to put hardware together. You have to know some software. We’re doing our best to make it easier and easier, but it’s very far from a consumer product at this point.
It’s more of like the early days of 3D printing, where you had to kind of be a hobbyist and a hacker or a maker, and you had to have the skills with soldering and troubleshooting hardware and all this stuff, in order to get it to work properly. That’s kind of where Farm Bot’s at today.
But we want to go towards sort of this plug and play, it just works type of system. You press a few buttons, and Farm Bot does the rest.
Why is being a benefit corporation (B-Corp) important to you?
So kind of just like with the reason why we’re being open source. I think it’s important to be a B Corp and that reason is basically, we’re all in this together. There’s a bunch of people on this planet, we need to feed everyone, how are we gonna do it?
In my opinion, the answer is not by creating proprietary technologies and being stingy business people who are seeking a profit. The answer is gonna to be by working together, by sharing our resources, by sharing our knowledge, and being good people to each other, within a company structure and to all of the stakeholders, be that the customers or other people in the industry of the companies and even the environment. All of those things are important for the future. We’re a B corp because we are able to embed all of those values into the company fabric.
Many investors say it’s hard enough just to drive profit. A social enterprise driving both a profit and purpose is very tricky. What has your experience been?
I think putting profit as the first and foremost thing of a company to pursue is the wrong way to go about running a company. That’s another reason why we are a B Corp. We are putting profit up there, but it is on an equal height pedestal with our values or our purpose.
I think that if we pursue our purpose and our values and we do good in the world, then profit will follow from that. If our ideas are sound and our practices in executing those ideas are good for people, good for the environment, and just good ideas in general, then profit will follow.
At least for us, so far, we haven’t had to really focus on profit. We’ve just been focusing on ideas and in open source and sharing what we’re doing, and that’s worked out for us so far. Obviously, we haven’t sold any product yet, that will happen hopefully in a week. I think it’s gonna work out well for us.
In general, what do you think is required for social impact?
For social impact, I think it’s somewhat what I just described, which is ensuring that profit is not the only motivation. Profit is great and necessary, in a lot of cases, to really make a large impact. Businesses are a fantastic mechanism for making a large impact on the world.
But as far as creating a social impact and doing social good, I think profit needs to be a secondary or tertiary goal in what you’re doing. Like I said, I think profit should follow your purpose.
Who has made an impact on their professional DNA. I’m sure there are many, but could you come up with someone?
Yeah, sure, there’s this gentleman up in Canada who got wind of the project, two and a half years ago. He messaged me online and said, “Hey, I like what you’re doing. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’m not looking for equity in your company. I’m not looking for free stuff. Here’s my phone number. Give me a call if you want business advice. This is my experience. If you ever need some money, to make a prototype or like pay for some expense that you can’t afford, let me know and I can just send you money purely out of donation.”
He wanted to see me and this project succeed — so he’s been pretty instrumental. Just like the term angel investor, he is like truly an angel investor, really kind of a guardian over the project, so that’s been really awesome. And one day, I hope to pay that forward.
What’s after Farm Bot?
After Farm Bot. Well, I guess I have a bunch of other ideas. One of them is a transportation technology called Pods. In one sentence, it’s a roller coaster optimized for transportation.
So not related to agriculture at all?
No. Because I think once I’m done with FarmBot, then I’ll probably move on to transportation. Or another idea in politics or government interests me. Specifically transitioning to digital democracy and online voting.
I guess just digital government in general, looking at the software industry and for them to start up culture and bring that to government. How can we make voting frictionless?
How do we make interacting with the government like going to the DMV. How do we make that frictionless, easy, efficient and a great experience for everyone involved?
Where is all this coming from?
I don’t know. I guess I spend a lot of time just thinking. When it comes time for me to do something fun, I very much enjoy just sitting on the couch reading Wikipedia and thinking.
A lot of people have great ideas. Do you have any advice on how to help people get started?
I think people just got to go for it. A lot of people, I think, are fearful of “failure”. To me, the biggest failure is just not trying. It’s perfectly fine to have an idea. Try it out, make a prototype or talk to some people about it. Then, maybe it “fails,” meaning it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to. But overall that was a success, because you did something rather than nothing.
What do you have growing in your backyard?
FarmBot is in the front yard! With FarmBot there’s 13 different varieties of just like winter veggies. So there’s arugula, broccoli, parsley, pepper, radish, chard, blue kale, red kale, butter head lettuce, Bok Choy, and a couple of other veggies.
I’ve been taking a time-lapse video of the plants growing. Once I’m done with the video though we’ll be having a big feast with all the veggies.
If you have one word to describe your journey what would it be?
With thanks to Chris Bersbach for the connection and photographs. Video courtesy of FarmBot.