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.


Steve “Woz” Wozniak to advise hologram emoji company that he calls “groundbreaking”

Apple’s co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak has found himself a new gig; Woz has joined the hologram emoji company, Mojiit, as an adviser.

In his role as advisor to Mojiit, the legendary entrepreneur and engineer will help assemble a world-class engineering team in addition to bringing investors and partnerships to the newly launched startup. Wozniak will also serve as mentor to Mojiit founder, Jeremy Greene.

“I’m thrilled to join Mojiit as an advisor,” said Wozniak. “Jeremy is a natural leader, the company is groundbreaking, it’s going to change the ecommerce space, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Created in 2017, Mojiit is the latest startup technology venture from Greene. The company’s tech essentially enables users to project and share 3D hologram emojis via smartphones.

The platform turns users into emojis by scanning their face, which can then be sent to loved ones and friends. Once a Mojiit message is received, it will map the area where it is received and place the Mojiit hologram there in real time, so it works in a similar way to Pokemon Go.

“Steve is one of the best and brilliant engineers in the entire world. But outside of that, he’s a wonderful man,” said Greene. “There isn’t anyone I’d want to be in business with more than this guy. He’s a legend. Who better to learn from than the guy who created the computer?”

Image courtesy of Nichollas Harrison. Featured image courtesy of Mojiit

In addition to consumer use, businesses of all kinds can tap into hologram emojis with Mojiit’s technology.

Mojiit investors already  include NFL alum Ed Reed, and the company was able to raise a total of $1 million in its seed round of funding.

Alongside the appointment of Woz, Entourage and Ballers producer Rob Weiss recently joined the company as a creative director.

“It’s exciting to expand beyond television and film to digital platforms,” said Weiss. “Hologram technology brings incredible opportunity to entertainment and media. I’m thrilled to be leading creative at Mojiit.”

Nanoengineers send antibiotic-delivering micromotors into the body to treat cancer-causing infection

Nanoengineers have demonstrated for the first time how “micromotors” that measure half the width of a human hair can be used to transport antibiotics through the body.

Nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego tested the micromotors in mice with Helicobacter pylori infections, which can also be found in about two-thirds of the world’s population and while many people will never notice any signs of its presence it can cause peptic ulcers and stomach cancer.

The mice received the micromotors – packed with a clinical dose of the antibiotic clarithromycin – orally once a day for five consecutive days.

Afterwards, nanoengineers evaluated the bacterial count in each mouse stomach and found that treatment with the micromotors was slightly more effective than when the same dose of antibiotic was given in combination with proton pump inhibitors, which also suppress gastric acid production.

Micromotors administered to the mice swam rapidly throughout the stomach while neutralising gastric acid, which can be destructive to orally administered drugs such as antibiotics and protein-based pharmaceuticals.

Because gastric acid is so destructive to traditional antibiotics drugs used to treat bacterial infections, ulcers and other diseases in the stomach are normally taken with additional substances, called proton pump inhibitors.

But when taken over longer periods or in high doses, proton pump inhibitors can cause adverse side effects including headaches, diarrhea and fatigue. In more serious cases, they can cause anxiety or depression.

The micromotors, however, have a built-in mechanism that neutralises gastric acid and effectively deliver their drug payloads in the stomach without requiring the use of proton pump inhibitors.

“It’s a one-step treatment with these micromotors, combining acid neutralisation with therapeutic action,” said Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila, a postdoctoral scholar in Wang’s research group at UC San Diego and a co-first author of the paper.

The nanoengineers say that while the present results are promising, this work is still at an early stage.

To test their work, the team is planning future studies to into the therapeutic performance of the micromotors in animals and humans, and will compare it with other standard therapies used to combat stomach diseases.

UC San Diego nanoengineers also plan to test different drug combinations with the micromotors to treat multiple diseases in the stomach or in different sections of the gastrointestinal tract.

Overall, the researchers say that this work opens the door to the use of synthetic motors as active delivery platforms in the treatment of diseases.

Image and video courtesy of the Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics at UC San Diego.