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When I walked into the NYC Resistor hackerspace in Brooklyn last October, a set of large glass cases quickly drew me over. Inside, a ferris wheel-like circle of platforms punched with holes stood ready to begin turning. I couldn’t imagine what they could possibly be for.
I later caught up with one of the creators of the mysterious cubes: Chris Beauvois, an NYC Resistor member who told me that they are called GrowCubes and serve as a controlled environment to efficiently grow plants indoors. After growing steadily for three years, Beauvois said GrowCubes is nearing the moment where it will be ready to place units in homes.
The cubes can be used to grow lettuce, chives, radishes, strawberries, herbs and many other types of fruits and vegetables that don’t need a large amount of space. As lamp technology improves, Beauvois said they expect to add to the library of possibilities.
“The things that you really want fresh and are sort of tricky to find in an urban area, that’s sort of the niche that we can offer today,” Beauvois said.
GrowCubes grow plants with 95 percent less water than traditional gardening methods by relying on aeroponics. There’s no soil or streaming water involved. Instead, the plants are watered via a fine mist that contains all the nutrients they need. The cubes are also pressurized and lit with UV lights to kill off bacteria, parasites and fungi.
They’re also smart: Integrated software can monitor for blight and ensure plants get the nutrients they need at the right time. The GrowCubes team has been working on “recipes” that dictate precisely what each type of plant needs, ensuring they grow perfectly every time.
The cubes can be four feet by four feet or the size of a dishwasher, meaning they could fit in most homes. But Beauvois thinks large industrial farms are an even better option. The larger cubes could be stacked and kept in a large warehouse, from where the fresh produce could be transported to local homes. Think of it as a modern alternative to community supported agriculture.
“That would really be ideal if we were able to partner municipalities to build a large scale integration of GrowCubes. It’s great to have one at home, but it’s great to reap the benefits without having to buy them or take up the space. They’re more practical if we scale the growth for you and you benefit from food delivery weekly,” Beauvois said. “I would love to see adoption by cities like the city of New York or San Francisco or Detroit; cities that don’t produce anywhere near the percentage of the food they consume.”
He said GrowCubes would like to launch a Kickstarter campaign this summer and deliver completed units to backers by the end of 2014. From there, he said he would like to give users the opportunity to push the technology forward. They will be able to tweak and create new recipes to foster new varieties of plants.
“I’m pretty involved in open source hardware and software. It would be nice to be able to have as much of that as possible available for improvements by the community or so people can maintain them themselves or create jobs for plumbing,” Beauvois said. “We would like the cubes themselves to be hackable.”
This post was updated on January 3 to note that there are two cube sizes.