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Sensors and automations in permaculture farms & gardens

Posts: 119
Location: Eastern Great Lakes lowlands, zone 4/5
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This can be a sensitive subject. For the sake of conversation, let's leave the debate about the goodness or badness of automation aside. It came up in this thread https://permies.com/t/98565/robot-picks-pepper-seconds-tiny#812604 and it sounds like some permies are (or are at least thinking of) using environmental sensors and robotics to automate farm tasks. I'm not talking motorized saws vs handsaws, I'm talking weather sensors, automatic feeders, etc. Smallish scale precision ag.

Two foundations we can build this discussion on:
1. Precision ag and automation is probably inevitable, and could have conservation benefits. (Though in the hands of Big Agrochemical, it's unlikely to go in the right direction). As permies we can optimize for those conservation benefits, either directly (minimize inputs, though permaculture has that covered already; optimize timing of events) or indirectly (free up our own time and headspace to focus on doing creative tasks: plant propagation, design and planting, new crop exploration, reforesting.

2. Circuits and electronics have high emergy in manufacturing and require electrical energy for use which is not easy to access without other high emergy products like batteries. So, inevitably this will have environment negatives. Again this can be debated elsewhere but I bring it up here to note that use of this technology needs to be conservative and careful to minimize harm toward our own permie missions!

With that said, is anyone here already using sensors and automation? Basic or advanced 'precision ag'?


I researched setting up soil moisture sensors to notify me if/when watering was needed. While checking soil moisture myself is a useful way to observe the plants, since I had many potted plants it became an extra task for every pot as I also needed to check for pests and such. I thought if I kept digital tabs on soil moisture I could put more attention to aphid control and propagation. Anyway, all the affordable soil moisture sensors I found were not precise or accurate enough to be useful, they were more like 'is this wet or not' vs. 'is this over or under ~40% moisture'. Set that project to the side for now.

For now the most automated part of my system is a heat mat with a thermostat and soil temperature sensor, used for seedling and cutting starts.

I've read a bunch about FarmBot but it is a way too expensive garden bed and maybe all the emergy of the machine parts outweigh environmental benefits. On the other hand Open Source Ecology has a lot of more accessible gizmos but most are not sensors and automation, just force-multiplying tools.
Posts: 3054
Location: Central Texas zone 8a
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A chicken feeder or waterer could be considered automatic cause it can turn a daily chore into a weekly or ×2 weekly chore.

If you take batteries and electronics into account i have 3.

Automatic chicken door with battery, electronics, solar panel, and charge controller.

Automatic deer feeder with solar panel. When looking at homestead meat, a deer feeder filled 3 to 4 times a year is much less work than what we put into cattle and sheep raising. The slaughter and butchering of deer and lamb are similar, the time prior to that is a big gain. The deer can "pasture" anywhere they want. On your land or over the fence. You're not involved in their birthing, etc.

Game cameras with solar chargers and data plan to send pics to my phone. There are animals i would not know were on my place without this. Turkeys are a good example. Ive still never seen one but they made it to my camera at my deer feeder. Another is knowing that big dogs were chasing my cows. Camera notified me.
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Another negative related to (2) is that many electronics contain toxic materials, some not even suitable for disposal in a landfill.  If such were used at scale over long periods of time, inevitably e-waste would become incorporated into the soil.

Non-toxic electronics are a must.
Posts: 1579
Location: northern California
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Just last summer I discovered the blessing of irrigation timers!  My climate demands all-summer irrigation of most plants except natives, and more than once irrigation has been overlooked leading to yield losses and even losses of plantings.  They are battery powered but I suppose the batteries could be rechargeables or that they could be "hacked" into power supply by means of a AC/DC converter.  I also use a couple of indoor/outdoor thermometers with memory, to keep record of nightly lows, and in the past I have had one of these with an alarm to give me warning of sudden frosts.  Another one is a small brooder heater with a thermostat, which I use inside of a large cardboard box in which I incubate tempeh.  This is a warm temperature ferment which does best at a steady temperature in the upper 80's F.
gardener & hugelmaster
Posts: 1881
Location: mountains of Tennessee
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Was trying to find a link to a site from many years ago. One could plant a seed & care for it via internet. Believe it was a university project.

This is interesting.   robo weeder

I had one of the robotic lawnmowers a few years ago. Have to admit it was cool & worked well. Would rather have some sheep or goats.
We don't have time for this. We've gotta save the moon! Or check this out:
Rocket Mass Heater Plans: Annex 6
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