Technology

Click grows food with gadgets on its smart allotment

There's silicon in the soil and bytes in the bees - the Click team is on a mission to tech up its own plot of land.

It's an overcast morning in March and the Click team are standing in a muddy allotment in London looking unhappy.

Someone points out a gnome guarding a neighbouring patch, almost with a hint of jealousy.

The current Click allotment has no such fancies. But that's all about to change.

In the distance a man is noisily removing a tree stump, using a device that combines a lawn mower and a circular saw; it looks like a retired competitor from Robot Wars.

I imagine doing the same task using a simpler tool, say an axe, wouldn't be quite as fast (or noisy).

Image caption The Click team will maintain their patch over the course of the current year

This is the idea behind the Click allotment project. In many ways agriculture has been at the vanguard of tech innovation for thousands of years.

From the earliest pestles and mortars, to ox-drawn ploughs, to self-driving GPS tractors, the desire to put food on the table has been a pretty good motivator for entrepreneurs across the centuries.

It's not a life or death situation on the Click allotment, today we'll get lunch from the local sandwich shop, but with serious consideration being given to how we'll feed the world in the decades to come we need to make the most of every inch of land we've got.

Over the next year Click will be packing our own plot of land with as many sensors and gadgets as it will take in an attempt to answer one question - do these devices help us grow food better and more efficiently?

Hi-tech hive

In a completely unscientific test we've split our land in two. Half will be just vegetables and the other half will be packed with as much tech as we can throw at it. Whichever half produces the most food for the least amount of work wins.

And already busy working toward that are the Click bees - looked after by the show's picture editor/apiarist Carel Nell, the on-site beehive has been rigged up with a battery of sensors that promise to give a data-filled insight into hive life without risking a sting.

Image caption The bees should be unaffected by the sensors monitoring their behaviour

The system, called Arnia, monitors a swathe of data, from the humidity and temperature in the hive, through to its weight and even the sounds your bees are making.

Different bee activity makes different noises, so you can get an idea of whether your bees are brooding, foraging or even planning to buzz off and look for a new hive.

Soil sensors

Away from the honey the first sensors to touch steel with soil are our collection of plant sensors. These stick like probes are shoved in the ground and collect detailed data about the environment your plants are growing in.

The Koubachi Plant Sensor Pro is the most expensive device we're trying out, coming in at about £150.

Image caption The Koubachi Plant Sensor Pro looks like a golf club, while the cheaper Parrot Flower Power resembles green pipes

It promises more accuracy over the cheaper Parrot Flower Power device, which costs about £35.

Information about light levels and soil moisture content is collected and sent to an online portal, which lets you track how your plants are doing over time, and if you need to make any changes.

But this wouldn't be Click's allotment if we didn't get our hands dirty, in a digital sense. We also want to build our own tech solutions to any issues or annoyances we encounter.

Around the corner at Our Lady of Muswell Primary School, Eva, Finnbar and Priya showed me just how easy that can be. Members of the weekly code club, these kids voluntarily stay late on a Friday to code, tinker and create things with computers - in my book that makes them pretty cool.

Image caption Primary school children have assembled kit made by Intel to keep track of soil moisture, temperature and light levels

My primary school computer education consisted of drawing shapes on a BBC Micro with what I think was a snail. These kids get to build an internet-connected plant sensor that monitors most of the same stats as the expensive devices in our garden.

And they are genuinely excited by it, 11-year-old Eva said: "When I say coding, my friends think of just typing words into a computer".

Ten-year-old Finnbar continues: "But the biggest thing with coding is your imagination, let your imagination run wild and you'll be a really good coder… I never imagined that you could measure something in these tiny wires."

Duncan Wilson, who run the code club when not working for Intel, said: "A Nasa satellite went up at the start of this year measuring soil moisture at a global scale, but providing the kids with these little kits that they can play with and use in their own gardens allows them to get an understanding of how it affects them locally."

Agro-hacking

On the allotment the first hack we've tried is the Infragram project.

Image caption Click has taken a filter off a stills camera in order to record infrared levels and study photosynthesis in their plants

It comes as a $10 (£6.70) kit with instructions on how to supercharge most old digital cameras so that they can "see plants photosynthesise".

It requires taking your camera apart and replacing a few parts, but the results are pretty impressive. Be careful though, in the process of modifying our camera, I accidentally broke the screen.

The idea is a miniaturised version of Nasa's Landsat project - which is able to collect similar near-infrared images on a much larger scale using a network of satellites.

Back on planet Earth the Farm Hack community take agro-hacking to the next level. The organisation gets farmers together with tech-savvy makers to design and build hi- and low tech tools that make farming easier.

The community has built everything from a DIY bird scaring machine to a smart compost monitor.

Having access to all of this data doesn't just mean farming more efficiently, it also means more people can be involved in the process.

Image caption The smart beehive will, hopefully, mean a bumper honey harvest

If the idea of dusting off your Barbour jacket and squeaking on the wellies doesn't appeal on a Saturday morning, you can still be involved through the data.

Helen Steer, co-founder of the City Farmers social enterprise, said: "Community projects can use data to engage their local audience and give people a sense of involvement, even though they're not on the farm every day."

"I met a farmer who's using sensors to let customers monitor their food as it grows before it goes into a veg box… it involves people more in the food system they're part of and depend on."

The Click allotment project is only just germinating, over the next year we're planning on getting our soldering irons out and picking up our Raspberry Pis to make our garden as hi-tech as possible.

If there's something green you think there should be a hi-tech solution for, or if you've put something hi-tech into the soil let us know, email click@bbc.co.uk or tweet us @BBCClick.

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