MIT student designs gardening robots that could grow produce for astronauts on Mars

A NASA fellow and aerospace engineering student at the University of Colorado has invented a robot and artificial intelligence system that’s may open new avenues for space exploration and habitation. Heather Hava won the $15,000 “Eat it!” Lemelson-MIT undergraduate prize for her robotic gardeners, and now she hopes to raise $150,000 to fund further development of the product through her company Autoponics.

One of Hava’s inventions is a smart pot called SPOT: a soilless, hydroponic pod capable of growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — everything from strawberries to tomatoes and leafy greens. The nutrient-rich water filters into a reservoir, and the system is designed to monitor the garden as it grows so astronauts can focus on other tasks. Sensors track each plant’s vital signs and resources, gauging water temperature, pH level, and humidity within the pods. 

An AI application called AgQ analyzes and reports that data back to astronauts. The system can detect if a plant is dying or low on water and immediately send an alert to the plant’s caretakers. It can even monitor the astronauts themselves by connecting to a suit that analyzes their nervous systems.

A remote controlled rover named “ROGR” is a collaboration between Havas and NASA. ROGR is just a prototype at this point, but may one day roll around the garden, inspecting plants and relaying video back to astronauts. 

Related: Researchers use fungi to develop space drugs on International Space Station

Astronauts will still need to replace water and harvest their own crops though. Hava insists this hands-on element is important – a form of therapy for astronauts far from Earth, confined to cramped quarters in desolate space. “They get to watch the strawberry grow, see it develop, turn from pink to red,” she told Business Insider. “There’s a psychological benefit through those visual cues. And at the end, you get a prize.” That prize is, of course, produce.

Space fodder tends to be freeze-dried or dehydrated; meals that leave many astronauts craving something fresh — but unfortunately NASA doesn’t pack and ship fresh produce into space. But with systems like SPOT, AgQ, and ROGR, astronauts might soon be able to grow their own gardens in environments as harsh as Mars. 

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