Category Archives: Uncategorized

Will ‘Farmbot’ Cost Jobs or Create Them?

Whether you buy organic produce, grow your own, buy from farmers’ markets or even watch your own veggie patch fill with weeds because you’re ‘too busy with stuff’, you’ll have an opinion about this piece.

I came across this new startup whilst in NZ last week at a conference. Ironically I learnt about this not from the conference but from a tourist sidebar to a local glass artist, and during an hour of chatting about sustainability he told me about ‘Farmbot’.

 

farmbot-genesis-658x370

The Farmbot trials have begun. Click on the image to hit the site.

 

Farmbot is a a tech startup in the US and is touted as ‘Humanity’s first open-source CNC (Computer Numerical Control) farming machine’ – in effect a DIY farming robot for your own back yard.

When I first heard about this I thought ‘wow – game changer’, yet when I opened the first Youtube clip to find out more about it I had an instant gut reaction along the lines of ‘… but why can’t people get their hands dirty and plant the food and tend it? Are we giving up on kids learning how to grow food?’

I’ve written many posts over the past few years on the benefits of growing our own food, not only for sustainability outcomes but also for personal physical, psychological and even social  health… are we now saying that we should surrender all of that to a robot?

After a week of letting this idea gestate I’m now starting to see that there could actually be a range of benefits to deploying Farmbots, as yet untapped. Keeping in mind that this is a newly launched open source DIY technology, clever humans will naturally tinker with the design & coding etc. and no doubt create a diverse array of applications.

We could see derivations of Farmbot emerge on public lands to grow community food, installations for social or affordable housing, back yard veggies for people who are literally unable to tend a garden, and in particular scaled-up infrastructure for farming communities. One of the key tasks of the Farmbot is that it removes weeds without chemicals – therefore chemical free and zero labour costs.

farmbot-system-people-automate-growing-vegetables-gardening-destroys-weeds

Farmbot identifies weeds and buries them… could a future version somehow deter possums and thieves…? ; >

In reality, as with much of the emerging tech that we’re now presented with, I think there will be a perfect balance somewhere between human and robotic farming, a partnership. Imagine the Urban Farmer commanding a fleet of Farmbots to help with the workload.

And when (not if) someone blends this new tech with mobile drones then we’ll really be onto something interesting… : )

 

Eggspress Yourself – Free Range Buildings

Firstly this is about eggs. They can teach us a lot, and by the end of this post I’m going to draw a link between free range eggs and how we procure buildings. But eggs first.

And before I go further: The chicken came first. Something to do with zygotes. Apparently.

So the eggs thing… If we were to line up samples of all of the eggs on the supermarket shelves I’d have to confess that they all look pretty much the same. Equal. A taste test might reveal a little more – there are certainly different tastes between ‘cage’ and ‘organic’ etc., and I know that for many consumers ‘certified organic’ is a clear and reliable label that they will not waver from.

But what’s the deal with ‘free range’?

When I shop I take the time to read labels – I earn this time by racing around like a maniac between products… man on a mission and all that. And the labels on eggs have become increasingly confusing of late. So looked into it. The ‘formal’ national standard that defines ‘free range’ was clarified in March this year – and it means each chook gets at least 1sqm each. What you’ll usually see on labelling is ‘1 hectare per 10,000 chickens’.

Hmm…

Have you ever had chooks? I have, and I can tell you that if they only had 1sqm each the ground would be bare within a day and they’d be at each others’ throats within the week. Chooks are social animals – arguably pretty stupid at times but charmingly smart in the social department.

But the national standard says 1sqm per chook. So that’s what ‘free range’ officially means. According to CHOICE and PETA however the new standard is nothing to crow about, and 1,500 chooks per hectare is a more appropriate maximum.

CHOICE free range chart

Be warned that an increasing number of egg carton labels don’t state how many chooks per hectare – they’re now simply saying ‘free range’. You be the judge. I vote with my $, and personally I’m happy to invest a little more in keeping chooks happy, supporting caring businesses and feeding my kids happy omelettes.

So, what’s this got to do with green buildings?

Everything! As an industry we’ve become increasingly adept at energy and water efficiency and many of the physical attributes that comprise a building. We’ll keep getting better.

But one of the next major surges for us is going to be how we deliver buildings. We’re now asking ‘what were the social and community impacts that resulted from the manufacture of this product?’. Think ‘Fair Trade’ for buildings. In my view this has always been the ultimate goal of sustainable development – how can we use development as a vehicle to restore communities and help people who really need help?

A good place to start up-skilling on this is the Australian Supply Chain Sustainability School – they’re doing some cool things that you should know about. Click the logo below to get there.

Australian Supply Chain Sustainability School

So the next time you buy eggs – look at the detail on the label. You need to be able to sleuth your way past the marketing and the fine print. As with eggs, so with anything else you buy.

Rather than ‘the ends justify the means’, it should be ‘the means are the ends’.

Happy egg hunting.

The End of the Servo?

In May 2015 there were 6,358 servos (petrol stations) around Australia, ‘… up from a more than 50-year low of 6,092 stations in 2013-14’ according to IBISWorld, with the prediction being 7,005 by 2020.

That sounds like a significant growth being projected for a retail outlet that is primarily based on selling petrol and gas.

But hang on… there are other sectors predicting that within the next decade, all of our cars will be fully electric. Thanks in part to Elon Musk’s gifting of his electric vehicle protocols to the internet we’re seeing the start of the EV gold rush, with literally every major car manufacturer announcing plans for imminent release of their own full EVs within the next few years.

electric-charging

So, in the event that this might be true – why would we need the servo?

If we’re charging our car at home (the charging kit comes with the car purchase), the servo seems like a venue that is conveniently avoidable unless we’re desperate for some bread and milk or a warm pie after hours (if that’s your thing)… hardly the recipe for retail success.

Gas station closed

There are many factors and interests at play and I won’t attempt to unravel the many complexities of retail spending, profit margin trends or the vagaries of convenience shopping.

What does interest me though is the mental exercise of trying to re-imagine the servo in a near future where petrol sales have plummeted and can no longer support the business.

Here are some thoughts;

  • Super-charger stations for EVs? These high-rate chargers can give your EV around 100km range in 30 minutes. But, if we can charge at home, why bother with the servo..? Unless…
  • The charge is free if I spend a minimum amount in the new-and-improved retail outlet. Would the shop now specialise in food and beverage? Groceries? An evolved version of the local market? Maybe, although I’d suspect all of the existing retail markets are already fully catered for in each location.
  • Convert wholly into a retail outlet? Cafe or restaurant? Maybe, although when I picture the vast majority of urban service stations I shudder at the thought of spending time in those buildings – they’re far from humane architecture and are designed as nothing more than transient spaces… they’d need a significant forecourt-blitz to re-imagine them. Cost prohibitive in most cases.
former-gas-station

The Filling Station, Oregon, CA. It works when the setting is right.

  • Demolish and build some apartments? I’d say very likely in many locations – notwithstanding the site decontamination costs, your average corner dual-access servo site would fit around 6 or more apartments, some would fit many more. Digging a basement car park would readily solve the decontamination issue.
  • Convert to local battery storage site for the new neighbourhood renewable energy grid? Local sewerage mining and treatment facility? Possibly, although I can imagine a web of planning and zoning controls and neighbour concerns that might need confronting…
  • Headquarters for the local Urban Farmer? (yup, this one just won’t quit – it’s going to happen soon : )
  • Convert to the local hyper-market garden? After a full decontamination (let’s ignore the inevitable human culture issues) and a full-scale rejuvenation of the site, perhaps they could produce high-intensity urban food.. think aquaponics, high rotation crops, permaculture, bee hives etc. Hmm…. might be the poetic response? I’d love to see this but I can’t see it being financially strong – would need subsidies.
Whole-foods-greenhouse-and-solar-on-rooftop-in-Brooklyn-NY-store-e1387056953450

Rooftop farm, Brooklyn, NY

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see most if not all of these options come true… it will come down to each location needing the right reaction.

Any other ideas? This is still rattling around in my head.. so if you have others please let me know. The internet seems very dry on this topic and my curiosity needs feeding : )

As to why the major fuel retailers are investing literally billions in building new petrol stations around Australia – they must have a plan up their sleeve, mustn’t they? Are they land banking? Have they identified a superior use for the near future that they’ll reveal with a flourish at the right moment?

Only time will tell.

Free Petrol Treasure Map

This isn’t the flagrant click-bait you might expect it to be. There really is a map showing where you can fill your car up for free. But like all things in life, nothing is actually ‘free’… to get the free 6-pack you need to buy the carton (or join the gym); to get the free steak knives you need to buy the exercise thingy that makes you slim without sweating.

To fill your car for free you just need to buy the right car.

Of course I’m talking about electric vehicles or ‘EVs’. Once you’ve invested, you can embark on your own version of Pokemon Go with finding free charging stations.

This map (courtesy of plugshare.com) shows us EV recharge stations around the world, including Tesla’s Supercharge network which allows us to drive from Sydney to Melbourne on a couple of charges. Each tag on the map can be selected which will pop-up with the charging station’s details, e.g. address, how many charging ports, the type of charger, access details and whether or not there is a fee.

plugshare.com map

The savvy EV drivers will no doubt work out the most convenient network of free charging stations, many of which – thanks to our equally-savvy retailers – are located in shopping centre car parks.

Just a word of caution: you’re going to start wondering if you can drive between certain locations based on the availability of charging stations… it’s fun but time consuming, so don’t jump into this map unless you have some free time : )

The Tesla EVs have ranges between 370km and 500+km, and with the early signs of some hotels and motels also installing charging points (go-on, you want to find them on the map don’t you?), I’m seeing an emerging landscape that will let us roam the country in our EVs without sweating about running out of juice.

And one of the most poetic ironies will be seeing existing petrol stations start adding EV super-charge points – they’d be mad not to! It will be a fascinating retail dynamic to watch as it evolves.

We can’t get to Uluru yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Have fun with the map.

Lights On or Off – What Should We Really Do?

‘It uses more energy to keep turning the lights off and on, so just leave them on’. We probably all grew up with this one, but is it really true? Well, naturally the issue is a lot more complex than you might think – but leaving all of the world’s lights turned on based on this logic would clearly be idiotic, so I’ve dug around and found a collection of research-based conclusions that bust this myth.

lights off

To put things in context;

  • The studies compare incandescent globes with Compact Fluorescent Light-globes [CFLs];
  • A globe’s [or ‘lamp’] lifespan [rated hours] depends on both how durable the design is, how often it’s turned on and off [uses], and the operating cycle [how long it’s left on for]
  • CFLs are rated at around 8,000-10,000 hours life span [let’s say, to keep things easy], based on a typical operation of 3 hours on then 20 minutes off;

One of the best facts I found was from the US Dept. of Energy site: when we switch on a CFL it has an ‘inrush’ phase where it does use more energy, but only for 1/120th of a second, equivalent to 5 seconds of operation. So unless you’re a little kid standing there flicking the lights on and off fifty times a second and going ‘whooohooooo’ then don’t stress – just turn them off.

For some further detail, this Rocky Mountain Institute study conducted in 2008 has some great findings and write-up (i.e. easy for me to understand). It found that no matter what, a CFL still trumps an incandescent globe. Increasing the uses and/or decreasing the operation time, e.g. switching it off and on many times a day and only running the light for 5 minutes at a time will significantly reduce the lamp’s lifespan, however even then a CFL will still;

  1. pay itself off with the energy savings;
  2. last longer than an incandescent globe;
  3. emit less greenhouse gases [by a long way];
  4. emit less mercury [by a long way].

In the office the story is pretty much the same. Lights such as T5s are rated for 10,000 or more hours and will typically stay on all day. Switching them off at the end of the day is part of what the lamps are designed for – at least 6,000 cycles and rising as the lamp technology improves – so don’t fret, just turn them off when you’re done, even in the smaller rooms that you might visit a few times a day.

Hopefully this leaves you feeling illuminated for the week : )

Weekend Challenge #05 – The Bicycle Tree

London is planning a £1billion investment in getting more people to ride their bikes. Hassell have designed a more than clever ‘bicycle tree’ as part of the proposal. I really love this approach to design – it blends urban design, transport solutions, engineering, advertising and graphics, and a cool App that allows you to summon your bike down from the tree when you’re ready to head home. Wonderful stuff – all conspiring to make sustainability cool.

You can read more detail about the design by heading into Hassell’s news item – click their image below.

hassell bicycle tree 01

And this is not the only cool thing evolving in our cities to encourage us to get on our bikes – there are a number of infrastructure-scale solutions that are growing in popularity;

  • Cycling Superhighways – well established in Denmark, being rolled out in London and LA. Dedicated cycling roads that make it safer and faster to get in the saddle;
  • Bicycle sharing schemes – the first one was the ‘White Bikes Plan’ in Amsterdam in 1965. There are now hundreds of such schemes around the world;
  • Commuting Groups – you may have heard of a ‘walking bus’ for school kids? Well, same deal for cyclists. There’s safety in numbers, and cyclists also get the benefit of socialising as they ride. I searched online in half a dozen cities and they all had such groups;
  • Awesome Apps – I’ve just discovered a free App called ‘Strava’ which records a huge range of data about your ride, and also provides rankings for all cyclists on particular journey legs… some bicycle paths in Sydney have thousands of cyclists using it. It’s a fun dimension to the commute which wasn’t available a few years ago; and last but not least –
  • Coffee and Pastries – well, that’s not infrastructure per-se, but I wouldn’t want anyone to think it’s all hard work and no play ; >

I’ve just started cycling again after a long hiatus, and I’m loving it. Despite the fact that my first night ride was so slow that I got mozzie bites, my energy levels have picked up and I’m already tapping into a huge cycling fraternity. In 1997 in Sydney I felt like the only cyclist… now there are hundreds on the road.

So, you guessed it – your mission for this weekend, should you accept it, is to get on yer bike and have some fun. Don’t have a bike? See if there’s a community bike scheme in town and borrow one. Or borrow a friends. Cycling is the most efficient means of self locomotion for humans – only uses a third the energy of walking!

Feel the wind in your hair and lap up that floating feeling.

C’mon Community Solar

This approach to community-funded solar installations  is an encouraging social solution to distributed power generation. The initial seed funding that is effectively a donation on the part of the original investors may be a deterrent in Australia however there are other sources of seed funding for those who are determined to get something started.

http://re-volv.org/what-we-do

There is no doubt a business case that lies somewhere in between, with some government-supplied seed funding, bolstered by some return on investment for the original investors.

I’m now curious to know what similar schemes might be up and running in Australia, and how they work, and will re-post if I find anything.