Sep 17, 2019

From (Space) Farm to Table: Using Autonomy and Robotics to Produce Crops in Space

Researchers from around the world convened at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in August for a two-day workshop focused on the use of autonomy and robotics for crop production in space. Over seventy researchers representing NASA, industry, academia and other government agencies came together to share their expertise in robotics, controlled environment agriculture, systems engineering, and horticulture.

A room full of several people watching a presentation about the Mars-Lunar Greenhouse projected on a screen.
The Exploration Research and Technology Programs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida hosted a two-day workshop, Aug. 6 and 7, 2019, focusing on robotics and automation in space crop production.Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

“Our mission was to vet NASA’s ideas with a diverse group of experts,” explains Ralph Fritsche, senior project manager for space crop production in support of deep-space exploration at Kennedy. “We wanted to explore how autonomy and robotics could contribute to the role that plants will play on future exploration destinations, as well as the role of crop plants as sources of both food and psychological well-being for our astronauts.”

Presenters shared insights about new technologies, including strategies for designing systems to interact with robots and best practices for prioritizing tasks where autonomy and robotics could yield the greatest impacts.

“We solicited input about how different vehicle sizes, destinations, and concepts of operation might drive the autonomy and robotics choices we could consider incorporating in the future,” continues Fritsche.

The group discussed scenarios requiring differing levels of autonomy, ranging from a small-scale, short-term research payload designed for the Gateway in orbit around the Moon to a full-scale greenhouse designed as part of a permanently staffed Mars base.

The success and productivity of the workshop has led to discussions for further partnership opportunities between government agencies, academia and commercial vendors.

“This workshop exemplifies the many benefits that collaboration across disciplines, countries and industries can bring not just to space exploration, but ultimately to life back on Earth,” adds Dr. Craig Kundrot, Director of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division. “The advancements that we make with crop production in space can directly impact the way that we grow crops here on Earth—which is why this research is critical to international leaders, scientists, engineers and farmers around the world."

For highlights of Kennedy’s Explorations Research and Technologies Program Workshop, watch the video.

To learn more about the ways researchers are pioneering other scientific discoveries, visit NASA’s Space Experiments website.