1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Rory Aronson


Did you know that 80% of the 2015 Hackaday Prize finalists are powered by Atmel? With only days left until we learn which project will walk away with this year’s crown, we recently sat down with each of the potential winners to get to know them better. 


A finalist in this year’s Hackaday Prize, FarmBot is a prime example of how the DIY Movement can make a long and ever-lasting impact on our world. The brainchild of mechanical engineer and social entrepreneur Rory Aronson, the project is an open source CNC farming machine that hopes to one day make an open food future more accessible to everyone. Using a web-based application, users can graphically design their farm or garden to their desired specifications by dragging and dropping plants into a map, as if it were a game of FarmVille. Other features include storing and manipulating data maps, a decision support system to facilitate data driven design, access to an open plant data repository, and real-time control and logging.

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We recently had the chance to sit down with Aronson to learn more about the project, his inspiration and what the future holds following the Hackaday Prize.

Atmel: What is FarmBot?

RA: FarmBot is an open source CNC farming machine and software package designed for small-scale precision food production. Similar to 3D printers and CNC milling machines, FarmBot hardware employs linear guides in the X, Y and Z directions. This allows for tooling such as seed injectors, watering nozzles, sensors and weed removal tools to be precisely positioned and used on the plants and soil.

FarmBot is controlled by an Arduino/RAMPS stack and an Internet-connected Raspberry Pi 2. The hardware is designed to be simple, scalable, hackable and easily produced.

Atmel: How did you come to the idea for FarmBot? Moreover, what inspired you to enter the contest with your project?

RA: The idea for FarmBot came to me while I was taking an agriculture class in college. One day, a guest lecturer and farmer spoke to us about his newest tractor — one that used a camera and computer vision system to detect and remove weeds. I thought it was pretty cool, but also viewed the system as a band-aid solution. Rather than building something new from the ground up, the agriculture hardware industry is tacking precision systems into historically imprecise tractors at an immense cost. What’s more, there is virtually no equipment available to empower small-scale food producers. This is where FarmBot comes in as a low-cost, small-scale, precision-first system.

In these early days, FarmBot needs a community to become early adopters and help build the open-source technology core. This is why we are on Hackaday — to rally a community that believes in our vision of an open food future, where the consumer is control of the food production process.

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Atmel: In line with the Hackaday Prize’s theme, how are you hoping FarmBot changes the world? What’s the mission?

RA: The FarmBot Project vision is to create an open and accessible technology aiding everyone to grow food and to grow food for everyone. In order to achieve this vision, our mission is to establish a community that produces free and open source hardware plans, software, data and documentation enabling everyone to build and operate a farming machine.

Atmel: What’s your vision for FarmBot over the next five years? Where do you see it going? Who would you hope will pick up the project and use it?

RA: Over the next five years, I hope for FarmBot to take a similar path as the RepRap project, where there will be an explosion of innovation from thousands of individuals and entrepreneurs who hack FarmBot technology to work for them, engineer better hardware, write more software features and build more companies that cater FarmBot to the masses.

Atmel: As we know, the Maker Movement has opened the door for everyone from hobbyists to tech enthusiasts to hardcare engineers to tinker around. What’s your personal background?

RA: I grew up tinkering and building myself. I definitely identify as a Maker. As far as technical background goes, I studied mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA.

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Atmel: Why pick Atmel (and Arduino) chips?

RA: We chose to use an Arduino as FarmBot’s microcontroller primarily because of the community support — most Makers are familiar with Arduino from other projects. We chose the Arduino Mega (ATmega2560) specifically because it pairs nicely with the popular RAMPS shield from the 3D printing world, which includes all of the features that we needed in a driver board.

Atmel: What advice would you offer other Makers when getting into hardware and embarking on a new project?

RA: Do a lot of research on the different hardware available. Everything has tradeoffs, especially when it comes to compatibility with other components. Strongly consider how large and active the community is behind the hardware you choose. I often find that a more popular hardware product is a better choice than the ‘better’ hardware product.

Hardware development is often stifled by the time it takes to ship physical goods like screws, raw materials, tools, and electronics. If you have the budget available, go on a shopping spree! Buy more than you think you need, and get a variety of components that you can play with, even if you don’t think you need them. Simply holding the materials in your hands will lead to new ideas that you would not have had staring at a CAD model or product photos.

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Atmel: As you know, we love to help entrepreneurs take their ideas from the MakerSpace to MarketPlace, so we’re wondering… any plans to launch a startup and perhaps even take FarmBot to Kickstarter?

RA: Yes! In addition to creating community resources for the FarmBot Project community, I have started a company, FarmBot.io. We are planning on launching the first ever FarmBot kits on Kickstarter in 2016. FarmBot Genesis is 1.5m wide and 3m in length, perfect for getting started in a small space. Meanwhile, Genesis XL is 3m and 6m in length and capable of growing four times the food of its small sibling.

Atmel: And, we’ve got to ask. If you win, are you heading to space or taking the cash?!

RA: Cash! As fun as space would be, I’m pretty certain I’ll be going in the future when the price comes down. In the meantime, the cash prize will help me bring FarmBot to the masses more quickly.

Don’t miss our other interviews with fellow HaD Prize finalists Chris LowOpenBionicsEric WilliamEyedrivomaticRadu Motisan and Reiner van der Lee!

2 thoughts on “1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Rory Aronson

  1. Pingback: 1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist MW Motors | Atmel | Bits & Pieces

  2. Pingback: Rewind: 8 Maker projects changing the world | Atmel | Bits & Pieces

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