Salad in deep space: Robot gardeners to grow food for astronauts aboard spacecraft

NASA is looking to university students to help find solutions for feeding astronauts on long space missions, with promising results.

Students at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a growing system that uses robots to cultivate and harvest plants during deep-space explorations.

The project, titled “Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces”, places plants throughout the spacecraft rather than utilising a designated area for growing. According to the researchers, this method optimises the tiny space available within the ship.

The vegetation is housed in small hydroponic growing chambers called SmartPots that contain computers and sensors to keep track of each plant’s development, including air and water temperature, pH levels and responses to lighting and humidity.

Each chamber communicates its plant’s conditions to a remotely-operated gardening rover (ROGR), which moves around the cabin responding to the system’s commands for water or other needs.

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The ROGR robots can also harvest the fruits and vegetables. If an astronaut wants to make a salad, the growing system determines the plant with the best, ripest vegetables and tells the robot to collect them.

The SmartPots and gardening robots do most of the work in the system so that astronauts can focus on other tasks during their mission.

Besides supplying food for physical health, the growing system and its “plants anywhere” concept could help astronauts maintain their mental health as well.

“We want to optimise a system allowing the humans to get psychological benefits from interacting with the plants,” said Heather Hava, a member of the UC Boulder team. “We also want the plants to be in the astronauts’ environment so they can see them, smell them and be around them. Who doesn’t love to pick a fresh strawberry?”

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The project is part of the eXploration HABitat Academic Innovation Challenge, an initiative from NASA that asks teams of university students to develop new systems for use in space travel.  By engaging students, NASA hopes to encourage interest in deep-space exploration so that ideas and designs continue to improve.

The exploration of Mars continues to be a hot topic, and this growing system could provide astronauts with the sustenance they need to make the long journey there.

Robotically-controlled gardens could even give insight into how we would grow food for a Mars colony, as plants are able to flourish in treacherous environments thanks to the hydroponic chambers. While powdered space foods might have a longer shelf life, eating fresh fruits and vegetables as we explore the unknown terrain of a faraway planet sounds much more appealing.


Featured image is a screenshot from Elysium (2013), body images courtesy of NASA/ Bob Granath.


DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.

Commercial Human Spaceflight Advances Prompt Calls for Space Safety Institute

Commercial human spaceflight has been a long-held dream, but now it is finally poised to become a reality. Companies including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are inching ever closer to taking private citizens into space, and there are serious plans for spaceports in several parts of the world, including Hawaii, the US, and Scotland, the UK.

But while the industry is advancing, the legal side of this fledgling commercial space industry remains underdeveloped, leading to calls for the development of an organisation to establish a framework for the safe operation of spaceports for human commercial spaceflights.

Writing in the journal New Space, Mclee Kerolle, from the United States International Institute of Space Law in Paris, France, has proposed the establishment of a Space Safety Institute recognised by the US congress and the United Nations.

This institute would “develop, enforce and adopt standards of excellence”, allowing the industry to develop while protecting it from liability and insurance risks.

“Currently, no international regulatory body exists to regulate the operation of spaceports,” he wrote. “This is unfortunate because while the advent of commercial human spaceflight industry is imminent, a majority of the focus from the legal community will be on regulating spaceflights and space access vehicles.

“However, the regulation of spaceports should be viewed in the same light as the rest of the commercial human spaceflight industry.”

The article focuses particularly on the establishment of a spaceport at the Kona International Airport in Keahole, Hawaii. At present, the spaceport’s development is subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Authority, however there are aspects to spaceport development that do not apply to conventional aviation operations.

A spacesuit design for commercial flights developed by SpaceX. Featured image: SpaceX’s proposed spaceport for its conceptual interplanetary transport system. All images courtesy of SpaceX

The institute would be designed to first and foremost ensure safety within the industry, so it would be important, according to Kerolle, to ensure it was made up of individuals with expertise in the field, rather than bureaucrats.

“To make sure that this flexibility is inherent in a Space Safety Institute, the organization should be composed of individuals within the industry as opposed to government officials who are not familiar with the commercial human spaceflight industry,” he wrote.

“As a result, this should protect the commercial human spaceflight industry to some liability exposure, as well as promote growth in the industry to ensure the industry’s survival.”