Reaping What Robotic Farmers Sow

The Future Farmers of America would be automatons, or at least that would be the case for a rural plot in Germantown, if an open-source robotic farm under development turns out to be a success.
Germantown technologist Peter James is building a hydroponic robo farm off Brink Road. The agribots would be built from recycled junk.
“Part of being sustainable and scalable was to try to drop the cost of production,” said James. “Around here that's labor and energy cost.”
Under the shelter of a greenhouse, robots would tend to and harvest an array of greens planted inside rows of water-filled PVC pipes. The temperature inside would be controlled, in part, by a yard waste and coffee ground-fueled composting system.
James plans to donate some of the crops to a local charity — hence the name of the farm, James said, First Fruits Farm — when harvest time arrives. 
The farm isn’t quite ready for its beta release.
During Patch’s visit to the farm in late spring, scraps of salvaged materials  — the bones of his agribots — were scattered over the field. One greenhouse was nearly complete and the steel frames for the robotic arms were being set in place. 
James said he’s invested about $15,000 of his own money, though he estimated he had more than $100,000 worth of materials. 
He plans to put the DIY robo-farming instructions online open-source style, once he has a working prototype, so that others can recreate the model, hopefully implementing these farms on rooftops and in “food deserts,” his description for neighborhoods that lack places to buy produce.
First Fruits is under a land-use agreement with Bethel World Minsitries, a Silver Spring-based church that owns the land. Bethel World Ministries has a satellite church in Montgomery Village. 
James said he was not a member of the church.
In 2004, Bethel paid $3.5 million for a 120-acre plot off Brink Road, according to state tax records accessed online. Bethel wanted to build a church on the land, but because the site wasn’t slated for public water and sewer service the county denied the church’s application to amend land use rules.
Patch was unable to reach a representative from Bethel World Ministries for comment.
As for what was planned for First Fruits, the scale of what James showed Patch seemed relatively small. But James hopes it’s an idea that will catch on. 
Tractor builders like John Deere have been toying with autonomous tractors for years. An Iowa roboticist came up with Prospero, a WALL-E looking hexapod that can work the fields. Robo farming methods were also used in Japan after last year’s tsunami.
How soon might the first robo farm be up and running in Germantown? 
“It's a lot slower than I had anticipated," James said. "We're hopefully going to have prototype production going by the end of the summer.”


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