An award-winning autonomous hydroponic growing system called Box Farm, designed and built by engineering students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, was successfully tested at the NASA-funded Inflatable Lunar-Mars Habitat at the University of North Dakota (UND) in May.

“Because this system is a proof-of-concept prototype, we want to prove the individual tasks it can do,” Preston Tran, the project’s team leader who graduated from UH Mānoa in May, told UND Today. “Once it’s been proven, the system can be expanded to take care of hundreds or thousands of plants.”

five people in Inflatable Lunar-Mars Habitat

Front, Trevor Sorenson, UH Mānoa Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory Project Manager Trevor and mentor. Back from left, Preston Tran, team leader; James Thesken, system integrator and control subsystems lead; Gabor Paczolay, static subsystems lead; Sean Agpaoa, robotic subsystems lead.

The director of UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory was impressed. “My first look at it is that it is excellent work, very well designed and mechanically very sound, using state-of-the-art technology in some cases,” said Pablo de León.

The Box Farm team says the system will cut down on manual labor and increase the productivity of crews in space or on Earth.

“I think this is the future,” said de León. “I’m not one of those people that thinks robots or humans. I think there will be a collaboration between robotic systems and human systems for the future exploration of space and this is an example of that.”

That vision of the future is moving closer to reality. Tran says he and a couple of Box Farm team members are starting an agricultural technologies company and are developing their business plans.

Trevor Sorenson advised the students on their senior design project for the College of Engineering. He is the project manager for UH Mānoa’s Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory.

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