Sunday, December 4

Engine-4 seeks to revolutionize agriculture in Puerto Rico and teach about technology and sustainability


Winds of over 140 miles per hour and heavy rains caused by the hurricane maria when it hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, they caused multimillion-dollar losses to the island’s agriculture.

When the hurricane fiona made landfall southwest of Puerto Rico on the afternoon of September 11, its maximum sustained winds were between 60 to 75 mph, or the equivalent of a category 1 cyclone but, like Maria, brought with it torrential rains and caused catastrophic flooding which, again, caused damage to agriculture, this time estimated at over $100 million.

This is one of the many reasons why Luis Armando Torres Perezco-founder of the laboratory Engine-4 in Bayamón, and his work team They work on the design and implementation of an ecosystem that, in the not too distant future, would contribute to substantially reducing or even eliminating crop losses at the hands of atmospheric phenomena or other natural disasters..

“We have agronomist friends and we held several meetings to see how we could address the problems facing agriculture, not only in Puerto Rico, but throughout the world; problems with hurricanes, earthquakes, extreme droughts. Our goal is to integrate technology into agriculture, not to replace human beings, but to give current farmers and the next generation tools to overcome all these problems.”, highlighted Torres Pérez during a hearing of The new day to the lab for a demonstration.

The team’s project is comprised of multiple components that, once integrated together, will deliver an automated planting, monitoring and handling system that promises to reduce crop loss from natural disasters, pests or other natural or human-made events.

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The initiative begins with cargo containers

The first component consists of the ubiquitous metal freight cars in which most of the products that arrive at the ports of almost every country in the world are transported.

The concept of harvesting inside these wagons, known as greenhouses, which offer an environment in which multiple variables that affect harvests can be controlled, is not new. The innovation of the Engine-4 team lies in the installation of a scaffolding of automated mechanical arms, known as FarmBotswhich take readings of the nutrients in the soil, measure the humidity of the environment inside the wagon and of the soil, collect data on the delicate pH balance of the soil and, in essence, can completely automate a harvest, from planting to harvesting. the harvesting of the fruits.

Once it collects all this information, the system then knows how much water and/or nutrients to introduce to the crop, what adjustments, if any, to make in terms of light input to the greenhouse, if pesticides need to be deployed for pest control and even carrying out the harvesting of the fruits once they complete their ripening process.

With all these components, the survival of crops would be practically guaranteed, since the wagons would offer physical protection against winds, rains and floods, and the robots inside would be in charge of keeping the plants in a suitable environment for their growth until maturity.

These computer-controlled mechanical arms, known as FarmBots, form the heart of the automated system the Engine-4 team works on.
These computer-controlled mechanical arms, known as FarmBots, form the heart of the automated system the Engine-4 team works on. (Ramon “Tonito” Zayas)

“FarmBot is an open source project (open source) of agriculture using CNC arms (in essence, arms controlled by a computer) that can carry out an infinity of tasks. These arms can exchange tools depending on the need. For example, an arm might have an attachment to take soil measurements, and once that task is complete, it returns to its base station and can switch to an attachment to create holes in the ground where the seeds would be placed. Once he is done with that work, he returns to his base and changes to an attachment with an injector loaded with the seeds and returns to the precise place where he made the holes in the previous step, and injects the seeds. All these tasks are carried out with extreme precision.”, explained Torres Pérez.

Since the code base can be modified by anyone, the Engine-4 team, made up of the brothers Victor Albert, Victor Alfonso Y Victor Manuel OrtizWith Daniel Gonzalez, Kevin Ponce Y Jose Torreshave made modifications to the programming to ensure that the arms, installed on a fixed scaffolding that runs along the top of a wagon, for example, perform the tasks that they designate.

“Víctor (Alfonso Ortiz) is programming a completely different operating system than the one that the FarmBots come from the factory and, for example, he managed to make the FarmBots send text messages, and the operator, through text messages, can send commands to the mechanical arms . We are developing that here, along with the integration of 5G connectivity with T-Mobile, which does not come from the factory, to have connectivity outside the network “

The control over the arms is exercised through Arduino systems, microcontrollers that are highly modifiable, efficient and easy to program. Torres Pérez added that the FarmBot system and the Arduino microcontrollers can run with solar panels, since their energy use is small.

“The problems that we can solve with this technology is the human hand, working on the issue of climate change, since many of these systems can be worked indoors, in controlled environments. We live on an island where hurricanes greatly affect agriculture. Some farmers had to close their farms and leave the country, as happened to some friends of mine, and that was the main issue: we want to work to offer solutions in areas prone to natural disasters such as hurricanes and develop urban agriculture, which is also growing globally”, Torres Pérez maintained.

In the future, Engine-4 will have a vertical container in which they will install a self-sufficient greenhouse capable of carrying out and monitoring each stage of a harvest.
In the future, Engine-4 will have a vertical container in which they will install a self-sufficient greenhouse capable of carrying out and monitoring each stage of a harvest. (Supplied)

The Engine-4 co-founder added that the Department of Economic Development and Trade (DDEC) sponsors the project with the goal of installing these systems in at least 10 schools around the island, starting between October and November of the current year.

“We teach teachers how to work with the system, and at the same time, they teach about robotics, programming, sustainability, science. That is the main focus of the project with the DDEC, which is the first phase”, she stressed.

In the future, Engine-4’s goal is to inaugurate a 12- cuerda farm in Bayamón where they show not only their farming system, but also other techniques that can also help in traditional, open-air farming.

The Grono Rovers

Although urban agriculture and in closed and controlled places points to be the future to which the industry is headed, Torres Pérez stressed that the components of the system they develop can also be used in traditional agriculture.

One of these components is the automated rover known as Gronowhich is a remote control car chassis that can carry all kinds of sensors inside, such as LiDAR systems (sensors that use laser beams to measure distances and create images of an environment), devices to measure plant stress, cameras and even a mini automated arm.

The land vehicle can, on its own, travel through a farm collecting data on the state of the soil, on the growth of crops and send all that information to a server that would then present the data to the workers for decision making.

“The boys, even, are working on integrating the system of Microsoft HoloLens with the vehicle, in order to present the operator with images and data in real time, what the vehicle is seeing, and through the HoloLens interface, the operator can make adjustments and make decisions at the moment and in the field”, Torres Pérez highlighted.

All these systems would run automatically through their microcontrollers, but all would be connected to the cloud computing system. Azure FarmBeats from Microsofta program that would help farmers through data analysis.

Torres Pérez added that any operation that requires more computational power than the Arduino microcontrollers can provide would be carried out in the cloud. These fields, or wagons, would be connected to the Internet through fixed connections or using the 5G network that, in Puerto Rico, continues to grow.

Sustainability and vertical integration

In the future, Torres Pérez highlighted that another goal of the project is to maximize the available resources through the vertical integration and sustainability of the greenhouses (wagons).

The image shows the Grono autonomous vehicle that can carry out various tasks both in a controlled environment and on a traditional farm, in the open air.
The image shows the Grono autonomous vehicle that can carry out various tasks both in a controlled environment and on a traditional farm, in the open air. (Ramon “Tonito” Zayas)

“The entire system is designed around sustainability, maximizing available resources. For example, the idea is that different types of crops grow in these wagons, and since we live on an island that receives rain all year round, we would have containers in which the precipitation that falls would be collected and used for crops. At the same time, the FarmBot system doesn’t use much power and can run on solar panels, so the energy impact is small,” he emphasized.

A goal of the project is not only to advance the technology around plant harvesting, but they also want to maximize the use of the spaces to, for example, raise fish.

“With the goal of vertical integration, for example, on top of the wagons we would have the crops, and below, we could have a pond to raise fish. Fish, such as tilapia, would benefit from the nutrients that the plants release into the water. So, in addition to growing the harvest, fish or crustaceans would also be raised for the population’s consumption, all under the same unified ecosystem and maximizing available resources,” Torres Pérez stressed.

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