Future Space Habitats Could Have Robotic Gardeners
July 9, 2013

Future Space Habitats Could Have Robotic Gardeners

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A group of students from the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State recently demonstrated how a system of robotic farmers could help future space travelers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The student team is developing remote plant production technology for use on NASA's deep-space habitat prototype.

As part of a graduate course sponsored by NASA and the National Space Grant X-Hab Academic Challenge, the 11 students -- 10 from UC Boulder and one from Colorado State -- have developed the Robotic Gardening System.

"We're involved in a one-year project management class that implements the systems engineering approach to complete the production of actual hardware," said Heather Hava, PhD candidate in aerospace engineering sciences with a focus in bioastronautics at the University of Colorado. "Our focus is on an automation strategy -- building the robotic hardware and developing demonstration concepts."

Designed to engage and retain students in STEM disciplines -- science, technology, engineering and math -- the eXploration Habitat, or X-Hab, Academic Innovation Challenge is a university-level activity which benefits NASA through the development of concepts from universities which may result in new approaches that could be applied to future exploration habitats.

During a June 21 demonstration at Kennedy's Swamp Works where NASA scientists work on developing rapid, innovative and cost-effective exploration mission solutions through partnerships across NASA, industry and academia, the Colorado X-hab team showed how their Remote Plant Production System works.

"We want to engage university teams in developing new technologies," said Tracy Gill of Kennedy's Center Planning and Development Directorate. "This innovation challenge is in its third year. While based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, Kennedy is one of the supporting centers."

The research team's primary focus, according to Hava, is on developing the hardware to support plant life. Hava plans to use this hardware for her doctoral research in life support systems and human plant interaction in collaboration with Ray Wheeler, PhD, of the Engineering and Technology Directorate at Kennedy.

"Our focus is on an automation strategy and developing demonstration concepts of robotic work," Hava said.

Gill notes the team has benefited from working with Kennedy plant biologists such as Wheeler and Gioia Massa, PhD, of the International Space Station Ground Processing and Research Project Office.

"Both scientists are key contributors to payload development efforts at Kennedy for plant studies aboard the space station including a vegetable production unit called Veggie and the experimental growth chamber called Advanced Plant Habitat," said Gill.

The Colorado X-Hab team is developing the capability to grow a variety of plants. These plants will be used both for consumption and for oxygen-carbon dioxide recycling on long-term spaceflights.

"Their system is a stand-alone project focusing on what future hardware should look like," Gill said. "They are path-finding the kinds of technologies we need to evolve systems such as Veggie and APH and pave the way to bio-regenerative environmental control systems that will enable long-term deep-space missions."

The apparatus designed by the team allows various plants to be rotated under light-emitting diodes used to simulate the sun. The plants will also be monitored by small web cameras and remotely moved as needed. A robotic arm allows observers to tend to the vegetation. A probe will check soil moisture levels, adding water and nutrients as needed.

"Software is also being developed to allow a robotic arm to grip and cut leaves, as well as harvest fruit," said Hava. "Our long-term goal is to make the system as automated as possible to save space travelers from the mundane parts of plant care."

The ultimate goal of the project is to create a system that is self sustaining, but plans are also in the works that would allow astronauts to work directly with the plant system. The team is also studying the physiological and psychological benefits of growing plants in space.

"We want to see what parts of plant care people enjoy and use this data to develop an automation strategy to maximize the plant interaction benefits for astronauts," she said.

Hava was a member of the 2012 class of NASA Space Technology Research Fellows, who are graduate students who show significant potential to contribute to NASA's goal of creating innovative new space technologies. Hava reported the role plants may have in long-duration spaceflight.

"Plants also provide an important link to Earth, exploiting the sensory enrichment of nature to contrast the stark and sterile machine environment typical of space habitats," she said.

Nikolaus Correll, assistant professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado and former NASA astronaut Joe Tanner, now a senior instructor of aerospace engineering sciences at the university, are leading a larger project, of which building a remotely-operated greenhouse is only one part. The hardware developed by the students for the greenhouse will be used to investigate the fundamental challenges of tele-operation and eventually fully autonomous food production.