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Aerospace engineering student Heather Hava shows off some of the strawberries she’s growing in the laboratory as part of NASA’s Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) challenge.
From left to right, students Jordan Holquist, Scott Mishra, Tim Villabona, and Rohit Dewani are building the robotic arm.
Plant growth is being studied in the laboratory as part of the project.

Imagine you are part of an astronaut crew traveling for years to establish a remote base on a distant planet. What will you eat when you get there—rations stored for years in your spacecraft’s cargo or fresh fruits and vegetables ready to harvest when you arrive?

The second scenario is better from both a nutritional and psychological perspective, and CU-Boulder students are advancing the technologies needed to make it a reality.

“Psychology is a major driver of how well people can survive in isolated, confined environments,” says Christine Fanchiang, a graduate student in aerospace engineering who is part of the student team participating in the 2013 Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge.

NASA Challenge

The X-Hab team was given a time frame of one year to develop a remotely operable robotic garden that will support astronauts in deep space. CU-Boulder is one of five universities selected to participate in the challenge, which is led by NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation. Each school has received about $40,000 to design a different habitat system, concept, and technology, and they all must deliver their finished systems to NASA in May 2013.

“This is a really good project—not just to get a taste of, but to dive head first into, the world of robotics,” says Scott Mishra, a master’s student in aerospace engineering who serves as software lead on the project. Robotics challenges include environmental mapping, path planning, computer vision, and artificial intelligence or decision making.

The students’ system will perform four major tasks: seeding, monitoring plant growth, harvesting, and processing crop residue to recycle nutrients back into the system. The completed system will be a “bioregenerative” food system that supports life by simultaneously revitalizing the atmosphere, purifying water, and producing food for consumption.

Because of its wide-ranging goals, the project involves students from aerospace, electrical, and mechanical engineering; computer science; and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.

Design Considerations

Daniel Zukowski, a master’s student in computer science, became interested in robotic gardening as a way to advance agricultural technology. He started working on the project during the proposal stage and is thrilled to be part of a NASA-funded CU team advancing systems development for the aerospace industry. “It’s the integration of state-of-the-art robotics with science and agriculture,” he says.

While the initial garden prototype resembled a tiered indoor gardening rack with a robotic arm that moved along each row of plants to perform gardening tasks, the students ultimately created a design that decreases the mechanical complexity of robotic movement required to reach each plant.

The final system will involve a robotic arm and gantry system, a plant module with a system of rotating trays that move each plant into position, and a handling unit for all the fluids and electrical elements. The system ultimately could be replicated and multiple units stacked in rows for higher volume production, the students say.

Spaceflight Expertise

Professor Dave Klaus, who leads the bioastronautics program at CU-Boulder, says the project is a natural extension of some of the work done at BioServe Space Technologies over the last 25 years. BioServe was established as a space life sciences research center at CU-Boulder in 1988, and its researchers have studied the effects of microgravity on plant growth and related topics on over 40 spaceflight missions.

Former astronaut and aerospace engineering senior instructor Joe Tanner is the X-Hab team’s principal faculty advisor, while assistant professor Nikolaus Correll of computer science is advising students on the robotic components. Correll’s advanced robotics class also has been tapped for assistance, while a Colorado State University expert on soil and crop sciences provides advice in that area.

Plant Health

Heather Hava, a doctoral student in bioastronautics, is specifically interested in bioregenerative food systems and optimization of human-plant and human-computer interaction that can help to inform the system design.

She enrolled in a master-gardening certificate program on the side so that she can more easily identify specific plant needs, whether they have to do with water, nutrients, or light, and use that information in the development of the system hardware, software, and automation strategies.

Strawberries, tomatoes, basil, and peas are among the plants she is test-growing under lights in the lab this spring, as she evaluates various semiautomated, self-contained growing systems that are available commercially.

But those entering the lab are advised to take note of the “Do Not Eat” signs adorning plants bearing juicy red strawberries: The future health of astronauts is at stake!

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