A New Era of Watchmakers: Building Smart-Garden Prototypes at écoHack

Photo by Jason Behrmann

The atrium at Concordia University was abuzz with activity, unusual for an early Saturday morning in mid-October. Yet, this was no ordinary Saturday because today was the écoHack hackathon in Montréal. Over a dozen teams of socially-engaged community members congregated to develop online services and prototype products that promote environmental sustainability and civic engagement. Huddled around their individual tables, hacker-enthusiasts toiled fervently during this daylong “work party” in anticipation for the final pitch competition held later that evening.

My team of hackers from Sensorica were easy to spot amongst the crowd: we were the only table covered with wires, microscopes, tools, electronics, laptops — and most notably, a mass of potted flowers. I took my seat and began work on our eCommunity Garden project.

First steps in making urban gardening easy and accessible to all citizens

Our ultimate aim was to tackle a growing global problem, food insecurity, by helping average citizens contribute to food production. We envisioned a future where any individual could participate in urban agriculture projects by using a “smart” gardening unit. Equipped with a series of sensors and electronics, our proposed eCommunity Garden would ensure optimal growing conditions — just the right amount of light, moisture, and nutrients — so that even people with no “green thumb” or free time could grow modest amounts of food with ease.

Being modular, our design aimed to be scalable, meaning that individual garden units could be assembled together in order to scale-up food production according to a user’s wants: one unit would be sufficient for a small apartment, while assembling dozens on a rooftop would enable citizens to be urban agricultural entrepreneurs. Best of all, this smart-gardening system could be connected to an Internet platform, enabling users to join an online community of urban gardeners who share information on optimal growing conditions. Taken one step further, we aspire to develop this Internet platform into a virtual farmers’ market and provide means to advise citizens about local environmental conditions, such as regional pest infestations. Being socially minded, we decided to make our eCommunity Garden a creative commons project based on an open source product design that is freely accessible to all.

Big ideas begin by taking small steps

Our team could not complete all these lofty goals at a daylong hackathon. Indeed, our efforts were humble and focused on basic software and hardware development and promotional activities. As my colleague and I tried our best to keep poise while staring into a camera and explained our project to the event coordinators, other team members developed code so that our arduino circuit boards could communicate with our light sensors. Additional activities centred on building a prototype of an energy-efficient pump for a drip irrigation system. The main component of our pump was circular piezo membranes, a sound-producing hardware component found in common consumer goods such as singing birthday cards and smoke detectors. When stacked together, applying a low electrical voltage caused the membranes to vibrate in unison, forming something like a beating heart that circulates water. The final prototype was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand and could run on energy generated from the most basic solar cells, much like those commonly used to power a calculator.

High-tech collides with artisanship

As the end of the day approached, we completed the final touches of our prototype by assembling custom designed 3d-printed components that held the peizo membranes and wires. It may sound like a complicated process, but in fact was rather “low-tech”, requiring steady hands as we applied synthetic adhesives with toothpicks. At this point, I had a moment of self-reflection. I turned to a teammate sitting next to me and said, “I feel a strange irony: we’re using the latest in cutting-edge electronics and computer software, yet here we are assembling these technologies by hand just like artisans from the cottage-industry era.”

My teammate smiled and replied, “we’re like a new age of watchmakers.”

Back to work us watchmakers went, adding the final touches to our project that we soon would present to an audience of judges and fellow hackers. Looking around I could tell that this competition was going to be tough given that all the projects at écoHack ranged from socially relevant web platforms to brilliant hardware innovations. Us watchmakers were up for the challenge.

I would love to hear about your experiences and projects developed at hackathons. Tell me all about them in the comments section below.

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