Rather than ‘Figure Out More Ways to Blow People Up’, Former NASA Engineer Seeks Solution to Feed World
February 21, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
When NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011, a lot of the engineers and systems technology staff ended up heading to defense industry contracting firms. But Douglas Mallette, founder and CEO of Cybernated Farm Systems, says he wanted to help feed the world rather than “figure out more ways to blow people up.”
So he founded Cybernated Farm Systems with the idea of building a fully self-generating and sustainably-operating greenhouse growing system that could feed precisely 634 people for 30 years, leave a small carbon footprint and provide nutritious, organic, fresh food in a world of rising poverty and hunger.
Sounds like a tall order, but Mallette is confident that his experiences figuring out the precise mechanical operations required for preparing a space shuttle pay load down to the minute square inch also prepared him for a humanitarian approach to making the world better.
“In contour crafting, you’ve got a robot that can build a 2,000-square-foot house in 24 hours,” Mallette said. “With our current technology, there is no reason anyone in the world should go hungry. We have the capabilities to feed everyone, in an affordable way that doesn’t destroy the planet.”
Mallette believes the old model of subsistence farming is a relic of the past, particularly with the challenges to agriculture from increasing climate change disruptions and disappearing arable land. He said the only way to address a rising population in bleaker urban and devastated rural landscapes is through engineered farming.
His preferred method is aquaponics, in a system that employs symbiotic relationships between mobile growing beds, tanks of nutrient-generating fish and a lightweight, and a polymer-constructed building that runs on solar and wind energy.
His 5,000-square-foot, self-contained, climate-controlled model features a central court of fish tanks (“Tilapia is the most nutrient-friendly for aquaponic crops and can provide extra protein for the community,” Mallette said), banks of grow beds on the longer sides of the building, solar panels outside and wind turbines above to generate energy (with LED grow lights fueled by batteries on cloudy days), rain capture and storage devices, large container bins that precisely measure out seeding on a rotating basis and a NASCAR track-shaped conveyor belt to carry seed beds to harvest and back.
The whole operation is designed to be run by two or three individuals but provide enough food to nourish more than 600 people over 30 years. The current estimated cost to construct and equip one of the greenhouses (with seed stock to last three decades) is about $1.5 million.
There should be little or no expense beyond the initial investment to keep the greenhouse operating, and the quick harvest turn-around for aquaponic produce (generally 18-45 days vs. 50-90 days with conventionally grown crops) would ensure that at least 600 people would have nutritionally-dense spinach, beans, microgreens, lettuces, tomatoes and peas for a generation, says Mallette.
That’s a cost:return ratio Mallette thinks nations can get behind. It’s also a George Jetson-like, utopian solution looking for an investor. Mallette has the model but will need about $450,000 to build a working prototype. He’s in such a hurry and believes so strongly in the project that he launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds.
“Crowd funding requires a lot of crowd support and I’m hoping people get behind this,” said Mallette, who has been working on the engineering of the project for two years without compensation. “There are just so many applications to this idea that it can help every kind of community.”
While impoverished African nations come to mind, the greenhouse system can be constructed to provide luxury resorts with immediate fresh produce, as disaster relief for countries like Haiti, and even in residential neighborhoods with acquiescent and progressive Homeowners Associations.
“It’s like a Victory Garden on steroids,” Mallette said. “The thing is, this situates truly fresh, sustainable, organic produce wherever it might be needed. So there is no more picking produce, spraying it to keep it fresh, trucking it, spraying it again to make it look fresh and pretending that it is something it is not.”
“Once the greenhouse system is in place, it almost runs itself,” Mallette said. “All you need is a $300 laptop from Best Buy to run the whole thing.”