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Farmbots and Raspberry Pi Help a Garden Grow

August 15, 2018

Adam Powers and his twin brother Andrew were homeschooled through fifth grade by their mother, an educator for 25 years. Their homeschool education exposed them to science, math, technology, and math, as well as real-world aspects of Seattle like the library and the zoo. He later realized this experience, along with a family who supported his exploration of coding and technology is typically not a part of the public school system curriculum. He wanted to find a way to bring that experience to students of Des Moines Pacific Middle School, where he and Andrew later attended public school. 

From that vision, Key Tech Labs was formed by the Powers brothers in 2015 as a “nonprofit mobile makerspace” whose mission is to bring emerging technology to underrepresented areas and to help create self-sustainable communities.  Through Keytech Labs programs, Des Moines students learn how to program by using technology to assess and build solutions for everyday problems.

Kids work in Midway Park Community Garden.Powers’ most recent idea was a program that included a four-week course that teaches Des Moines students to power a robot (called a FarmBot) with the ability to plant and cultivate a variety of crops in a community garden (Midway Park Community Garden) staffed by students and community volunteers. Students learn how to use tools to build, operate, monitor and maintain the equipment, the garden as well as all the produce the garden generates which in turn will be donated to local food banks. The FarmBot is able to perform almost all processes prior to harvesting including sowing, mechanical weed control, and watering. 

Powers’ vision came to life when he received funding to get the program off the ground. He was awarded a first round grant from the Port of Seattle’s Airport Community Ecology (ACE) Small Matching Grants Fund. The Small Matching Grants Program offers community members of SeaTac, Burien, and Des Moines the chance to apply for up to $10,000 of Port funding to improve the local environment. Community organizations, chambers of commerce, service organizations, youth or athletic associations, or other associations located in or providing services in the cities of SeaTac, Burien, and Des Moines can apply for funding. The Port is currently accepting applications for its second round of grant funding.  Applications are open through September 28.

“It was everything,” Powers said of the grant funding. “We are a small nonprofit. This was an idea, an innovative idea to get new technology off the ground, stuff that hasn’t been tried out yet,” he said. “There is no way we can grow from within without support from organizations and support from organizations in the community,” he said. 

“This project has been a dream,” Powers said. “We are doing what we can to make a difference in this area.”

He said acquiring the FarmBot was a key component to the program. The FarmBot runs on Raspberry Pi, which is a small and affordable computer that users can use to learn programming.  The FarmBot also allows users to adapt the robot by building their own parts and new features. “They encourage you to build on their device — communities can take it and make it their own,” Powers said. 

The first four-week course ended earlier this summer but Powers is just getting started. He has a goal of acquiring and putting together 25 FarmBots in the next five years and using them to create sustainable and healthy food sources around Washington. He said places like Des Moines and Sea-Tac are considered food deserts, regions with high poverty without access to healthy food sources, and that   nourishing food readily available  will make a long-term difference.

Kids work in Midway Park Community Garden.

All that’s required from student recruits is an interest in technology. Many students he talked to were a little intimidated by the programming and technology aspect of the course.

“All they needed to have was an interest — I encouraged those who were too afraid and tried to not scare anybody off,” he said. “The FarmBot is a daunting looking machine. We’re putting together a robot, working on making it move and function the way it is supposed to. But with guidance it was relatively easy; we were able to get it done in 12 days.”

The Port is holding a series of information sessions to answer questions and provide details about the grant program from 5:30-7 p.m.

Wednesday, August 29th, Des Moines Library (21620 11th Ave S, Des Moines, WA 98198) 

Learn more and complete an application for the ACE Fund program

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