A team of interdisciplinary researchers at UNM is teaching robots to take care of plants on Mars – a big step towards having viable food available for astronauts when they land on the Red Planet.

Architects, biologists, computer scientists and engineers are collaborating to develop real world tests and simulations as part of the Conservatory for Healthy Ingestion on Long-Interval Human-Occupied Unexplored Space Explorations (CHILI HOUSE) team. Their idea is to use robots to autonomously water and grow New Mexico chile peppers on Mars, the same variety of chile that will soon be growing on the International Space Station.

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The UNM CHILI HOUSE Team plans on using Swarmie robots –smaller, simpler machines than the current Mars rovers– and newly developed water sensors to nurture the plants remotely and autonomously.

“Astronauts will need to have freshly grown plants for nutrition as well for mental health,” explained UNM Biology Professor Dave Hanson, who researches plant productivity and space biology. “Ideally, fresh food would be available when astronauts arrive to Mars and be maintained continuously on both the moon and Mars without human intervention.”

UNM students and faculty representing the School of Engineering, School of Architecture and Planning, and Department of Biology are working with others from the Santa Fe Community College, Cabrillo Community College, Sandia National Labs, MicroCeres and Next State Systems.

The proposed structure is an inflatable dome that is covered with Martian regolith for protection from radiation and small meteorites. The interior of the dome houses planter configurations that best locate New Mexico chile plants outfitted with moisture and health sensors. Those sensors transmit signals from the plant wirelessly to a robot (or more than one robot). When the plant needs watering, the robots collect water from a distribution point near the center of the dome and transport it to the plant.

In essence, the plants are telling the robots when they need water, fertilizer, or other care. It’s a whole new realm of communication between plants, computers and humans that could shape how we interact with plants and other lifeforms in the future.

“The on-plant (wearable) sensors are working like translators for the plant. They monitor electrical and biophysical changes in the plant and provide an output that people, or computers, can understand,” Hanson explained. “We then program the robots to understand those plant signals, or communications. It may sound far-fetched that we may be communicating with plants, but just imagine ways we might need to communicate with other life forms that don't speak.”

Every detail matters when it comes to space biology, including the structure that houses the plants and robots and the material used to build it. The regolith-based construction is currently being tested by the concrete printing lab at UNM. Meanwhile, the dome’s internal architecture is planned and designed to best spatially allow the robots to understand their surroundings; and helps to define how the swarmies navigate plants and their needs.

“The advantage of using a robot instead of a watering system with pipes is that the robots can do other tasks such as visual monitoring of plants for disease or malnutrition; and they can add fertilizer or provide other adjustments for the plants as needed,” said Matthew Fricke, research assistant professor with the UNM Department of Computer Science. “Water drains through the pots to a sloped area below the floor of the dome and drains back to the distribution point at the center.”

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UNM faculty members (L to R) Kristina Yu, David Hanson, and Matthew Fricke

The researchers say using robots also allows the garden to be reconfigured more easily than a fixed piped system would allow.

“The planning for flexibility of plantings and configuration is a critical advantage to the CHILI HOUSE scheme. We hope this early innovative strategy will be a competitive edge in this national student competition.” Kristina Yu, associate dean for University College, and associate professor with the School of Architecture and Planning. 

A small set of robot gardeners can do multiple tasks. This will reduce the launch weight of the system and will allow for expansion. The UNM design proposal was approved earlier this year and NASA provided a small amount of funding to help pay for supplies to create simulations. Right now, the computer scientists are writing a simulation; it would show how the system works within the dome developed by the architecture and civil engineering students; and how it services the plant moisture sensors created by the biologists. The team is also developing hardware and software to show how a real robot might respond.

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UNM faculty member Maryam Hojati
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The initiative is part of the NASA Minority Innovative New Designs for Space (MINDS) challenge – a facet of the NASA Minority University Research and Education Project. The project challenges students’ skills, creativity and innovation while building technologies for the NASA Artemis missions, which aim to have people back on the Moon by 2024, then on to Mars.

“The Artemis program’s success will hinge on the creation of new technologies, and students are often the most outside-the-box thinkers of our time,” said Theresa Martinez, activity manager for NASA MINDS. “We are looking to students to be inspired, to uncover new ideas, and to ultimately bring those ideas to life.”

The UNM team consists of five undergraduates, out of a total of 12 team members including graduate and faculty advisors. Some of the students involved are also part of the group that recently qualified to the second phase of the NASA Robotics Challenge.

UNM CHILI HOUSE team members

Undergraduate students:
Stephanie Olivas, Biology (Senior)
Sydney Billingsley, Electrical and Computer Engineering (Senior)
Ken Le, Electrical and Computer Engineering (Senior)
Franklin Dyer, Computer Science
Biraj Siwal, Computer Science

Carter Frost, Computer Science, Cabrillo Community College

Graduate student advisors:
Kaitlyn Read, Ph.D. candidate, Nanoscience and Microsystems Program
Martin Luna, Master of Architecture
Natasha Ribeiro, Master of Architecture
Wil Lyons, Master of Architecture

Amir Bakhshi, Master in Construction Management, Master of Architecture, 2019

Muhammad Saeed Zafar, Ph.D candidate, Civil Engineering
Humayra Tasnim, Ph.D. candidate, Computer Science

Faculty Advisors:
David Hanson, UNM Department of Biology
Matthew Fricke, UNM Department of Computer Science, CARC
Kristina Yu, UNM School of Architecture and Planning, University College, Architect

Maryam Hojati, UNM Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering