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TE+NDer Loving Care: Hydroponic Robotics Technology to Invade U.S. Parks Next Year

The TE+ND is part garden, part robot. The TE+ND is part garden, part robot.


It’s a warm, sunny day, and you’ve settled on a park bench. As you allow your mind to wander, your eyes settle on a new addition to the park – a strange new animal, perhaps? The small, multi-legged thing is slowly making its way across the grass, seemingly interacting with other park-goers as it ambles around. As it comes closer, what at first appeared to be an animal is revealed as an eight-legged robot with a small hydroponic ecosystem on its back. You have discovered the elusive TE+ND Rover robotics technology.

It may sound strange, but the TE+ND (Terrestrial Exploration and Nurture Designed) Rover, currently in development by renowned Bay Area artist Marnia Johnston and self-proclaimed “geek of all trades” Corey McGuire, may change the way that average folks view hydroponics. Rosebud Magazine spoke to Johnston about the project.

It seems as though you are still in the development stage, but making some pretty great progress. When do you anticipate deploying the TE+ND Rovers to your chosen sites?

Johnston: Corey and I are currently working on the mechanical phase of the project – fabricating parts and fitting everything together. We are both learning how to use some pretty skill-specific tools, like the water-jet cutter. I think we’ll finish the first rover by March or April 2013, just in time to start planting here in California.

You’re a popular artist, and Corey is quite well-known in the robotics world. What inspired the two of you to work together?

Johnston: Corey and I worked together with a team of artists on another project called SWARM, creating semi-autonomous spherical robots with their own on-board light, sound and GPS systems. I’ve had the TE+ND Rover project idea for a few years, trying to marry my interests in robotics and native California habitat. I had been looking for grants to help fund the build, and when I got the grant from the James Irvine Foundation, I presented the TE+ND Rover to my old SWARM team.

Corey got really excited about the prospect of another robot project. Corey is most interested in building a simple robotics platform that other artists can use, that is customizable and built with off-the-shelf parts. The project is meant to be open-source, for anyone to build or modify once we’ve completed our research and development.

The TE+ND Rover is really a piece of interactive, purposeful art, as well as robotics technology. How do you hope it affects the public with whom it interacts?

Johnston: I imagine people acting as participants, trying to herd the rover toward light or actively watering the garden. I hope that participants will sympathize with the rover and its garden when they interact with it and scan the quick-response code on the rover with their cellphones to learn more about the project. The code will take them to a website that describes all the plants, their native regions, and how they can help preserve or create more native habitat in their everyday lives. Overall, the goal is to educate the public about habitat conservation in a new and interesting way.

Why did you choose to include hydroponics in your project?

Johnston: It seemed like a no-brainer. Soil and water are very heavy and require more energy for a robot to move all that weight around. Plus, the soil could potentially shift as the rover walks over hills, destroying the plants. Corey and I thought about a material that might be lighter and more efficient. I have two degrees in ceramics and had a great idea for a new ceramic hydroponics material. Here in California, many hydroponic growers use terracotta spheres or pebbles as growing substrate, but those materials would roll around on a moving platform like the one on the rover. So I developed a ceramic sponge material that will retain water and nutrients but will still aerate the roots.

Many of us see hydroponics as a way to address some of the problems facing our planet. How do you see the future of hydroponic gardening?

Johnston: I didn’t really start the project to advance hydroponic gardening; it just seemed like an elegant solution. Perhaps other growers will look at their options –water use, amount of arable land, need for pesticides and herbicides – and come to the same conclusion.

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These are the type of robots we used to get excited about, a far cry from TE+ND.
Last modified on Friday, 29 March 2013 21:10

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