In the realm of innovative growing techniques aeroponic growing is among the more obscure. It challenges just about everything the average person knows about farming by cultivating crops not in soil or even water (as in hydroponics) but in open air. To understand aeroponics, imagine a plant plucked from the ground, roots and all, and held in place so that the roots remain suspended.  An artificial light source supplies the energy needed for photosynthesis and a nutrient-infused mist is applied at periodic intervals. Direct, efficient uptake reduces water usage by an estimated 90 to 98 percent compared to traditionally grown crops, fertilizer by 60 percent. A sterile growing environment and the plant's healthy immune system eliminates the need for pesticides altogether. When not absorbing water and minerals, the roots receive a direct, abundant supply of oxygen, and the delicate seedling grows faster and more robustly than its soil-bound counterparts. Soon a crop is ready for harvesting.

If aeroponic cultivation sounds almost eerily futuristic, it should come as no surprise that NASA has long been at the forefront of aeroponic research and development. The agency has been experimenting with air-grown crops since the 1990s when it partnered with Richard Stoner, a pioneer in aeroponic systems development and founder of  AgriHouse Inc, to engineer an experiment to be conducted aboard the Mir Space Station. The experiment sought to study the immune response of plants during space flight and identify methods of keeping crops disease-free without the use of pesticides, an area in which Stoner's technology had already demonstrated great promise. Prior to being tapped by NASA, Stoner, who had been experimenting with aeroponics since the 1980s, had worked with researchers at Colorado State University to develop a non-pesticide solution, specifically intended for aeroponic absorption, that would boost a plant's immune system and help it fight off infection naturally. The result was a formula known as Organic Disease Control, or, alternatively, Organically Derived Colloidals (ODC).

Stoner's approach was a natural fit for NASA's investigations. The lack of soil and reduced water requirements minimized the amount of area, mass, and materials needed to sustain healthy plant growth, and it was hoped that Stoner's ODC formula provide a viable alternative to pesticides. The experiment, conducted in 1997, found that plants treated with ODC showed faster, more rigorous growth and greater disease resistance both in orbit and on earth, and demonstrated that the aeroponic technique showed great potential for cultivating food in space. Though the initial experiment used adzuki beans as subjects, Stoner's aeroponic technology has since been used on earth to cultivate a wide array fruits, vegetables, herbs, and houseplants.

Aeroponics may be fine for space flight, but the method has been slow to catch on outside of NASA laboratories. Why, after all, would growers choose such a strange, seemingly unnatural approach over the traditional farms we're so familiar with? While few are arguing that aeroponics ought to replace traditional farming, many of the advantages that make aeroponics ideal for space travel hold true for earth-bound crops as well. Minimal space, water, and sunlight requirements make aeroponics a particularly viable option for urban farmers. Since areoponic growing is conducted indoors, crops can be grown year-round in a controlled environment that prevents pest infestations and limits the spread of disease.  Moreover, aeroponic methods deliver a rare example of an improvement in both quality and quantity; the increased oxygenation to the plants' root systems results in crops that are healthier and faster growing than their traditionally or hydroponically farmed counterparts.

Of course, aeroponic farming has its downsides as well. While commercial aeroponic products are available, the technology can be expensive and the method demands a degree of precision and attention to detail that can be intimidating to a hobbyist. Different plants need different conditions to thrive, and those needs often change throughout the course of the growing cycle. Variables such as climate, lighting, nutrient content, and water uptake all need to be considered and everything timed just so. Growing media like soil or water provide a buffer against temperature fluctuations, dry spells, or delayed nutrient delivery, protection that's absent in the case of aeroponics, and a system failure --  a power outage, say -- could have devastating effects.

But in this age of information, Chris Beauvois has developed a prototype that he hopes will take much of the guesswork out of aeroponic growing.  His product, GrowCubes, is the winner of the Readers' Choice award in the Insert Coin: New Challengers contest at this year's Engaget Expand technology showcase held at the Javits Center in New York, November 9 - 10.

Beauvois' concept is composed of two essential features. The first, the part anyone can see and perhaps even begin to understand, is more or less what the name describes -- a plastic cube in which plants are grown.  GrowCubes are designed to be relatively compact and stackable, allowing growers to store vegetable gardens in basements or attics or closets -- wherever, in short, there happens to be room. Seedlings are supported by rotating trays that are synced with a sprayer, ensuring an even application of mist as well as exposure to the cube's LED light source. Pressurization inside the cube helps prevent the entry of pathogens.

The other part of GrowCubes -- the heart of the product, really -- is the software, which relies on a combination of input from the sensors inside the cube and data referred to as “grow recipes” downloaded from a cloud used by the GrowCube iOS app (Android apps are on the horizon as well),  to monitor crops' needs. Human involvement is reduced to the initial crop selection, refilling water and nutrient reserves, and making whatever adjustments the software calls for. “We can take away the complexity and turn anyone into a farmer,” Beauvois told Mike Riggs of Atlantic Cities. “As long as you monitor what it asks for, nutrients, water, you don't have to do much else. It culls data and analyzes it.” For growers not entirely comfortable with blindly following the advice of a computer, there is also a wiki element to the project wherein users are encouraged to tweak recipes and share the results. The idea is that GrowCube users will one day be able to set conditions in the cube to dictate not just what they grow but also taste characteristics like flavor and texture. 

GrowCubes, in their current form, don't solve all the problems associated with aeroponics. All the sensors, motors, lighting fixtures, and computers require a tremendous amount of energy to operate, and a power outage could still spell doom for tender seedlings. And it's still expensive; the current prototype has an estimated price tag of $2,000, though Beauvois told Riggs he hopes to eventually develop a consumer model for under $500.

Ultimately, however, Beauvois expects the data amassed by the GrowCube app to become more valuable than the hardware, potentially allowing users to apply the concept to set-up of their choosing. And there's no reason the premise of combining real-time sensory input with information collected online couldn't be applied to other indoor methods of farming such as hydroponics, aquaponics, or even more traditional greenhouse growing. Moreover, while much has been made of GrowCubes' applications for individual home use, Beauvois expects his product to have the greatest impact on a commercial scale. He and the GrowCube team hopes to install 50 to 100 units in a Brooklyn warehouse to create New York's first vertical farm, one which would rely on solar panels to help offset energy consumption.

Time, of course, will tell how practical Beauvois' ambitions are. It's an idea takes some getting used to, to say the least, one that might appeal more to hackers and technology buffs than the earthy, dirt-under-your-fingernails-minded growers of the world. But at the end of the day, food is food, and in an increasingly urban world innovations like GrowCubes engage a new breed of farmer and offer yet another possible solution the challenges of growing fresh food in densely-populated cities. 

Additional Sources:

GrowCube promises to grow food with ease indoors - Danial Cooper -

BeagleBone Black project spotligt: GrowCubes - Tara Stratton -

Prorgessive plant growing has business blooming- NASA - Spinoff

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FROM OUTER SPACE TO ENDGAGET EXCHANGE: ADVANCES IN AEROPONIC GROWING by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Leslie McIntyre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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