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Robotic Ecosystems

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Peter Bailey

Coder, designer, producer working in business innovation @peabay
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Silent Running set my inventor mind wild as a child. The film is about a series of ecosystems transplanted into space and carefully regulated by automated systems and robotics. Could a miniature world be created in an enclosed space? After experimenting by jamming weeds into jars to watch them rot and die I realized that the natural environment was more caring than I could be. Upon research I discovered that plants don’t need just water, light and soil. Many other factors exist, such as the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, levels of temperature and humidity.

Electronics aren’t needed. With some careful consideration (or luck) it is possible to create a garden in a bottle. In 1960 David Latimer planted one. In 1972, as an experiment, he watered it one last time and plugged the bottle with a cork. After 50 years in it’s own little ecosystem the Spiderwort plant inside is still growing with haste and survives only on recycled air, nutrients and water.


On the other hand, if you get the balances wrong you’ll simply end up with foggy glass and moldy moss as Sara discovered when making her terrarium. In her case the regulation came from adjustments in the ventilation (cracking the lid).

“see that condensation starting to form?!  and i was like, dammit! this terrarium shit is harder than i thought! this bitch is gonna fog up the whole time and i won’t be able to see all the cute, mini items in this radical teapot!” – Sara from Life Offers

The incorporation of tech means regulation can be accurate and fast, being able to deliver an environment potentially identical to a natural one. Biome is a concept by Samuel Wilkinson which aims to nurture plants via a mobile device. While the delivery of water, humidity and nutrients aren’t automatic they are monitored and the data accessed via an iPad. This kind of thing is a good step towards enclosed ecosystems, but the kit can’t solely sustain plant life (especially since light is provided by an energy saving bulb).


Tyler from Make Magazine has made a good stab at the problem and has published the instructions and Arduino code on their blog on how to build their miniature ‘smart greenhouse’. The setup is almost completely self sustaining, monitoring temperature and delivering water and regulating temperature by opening or closing the roof.


Tyler boasts that his creation is one of the most intelligent of it’s kind, but could be adapted to monitor moisture levels in the soil to help conserve water.

We’re at an exciting time in regards to automatic systems, sustainability and even space missions. As humans populate the earth, homes are squeezed in and gardens lost. The prospect of a self regulated indoor garden is certainly a possibility, not only for recreation, but also the cultivation of food. In the coming years we could see inventions like the smart greenhouse become the new symbol for the good life.

Posted 16th Jun 2013
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