Interview with MEG: the Connected, Open Source, DIY Greenhouse

By on April 10, 2014
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When I went to visit Maker Faire Rome earlier in 2013, in October, I stumbled upon an amazing project that caught my eye. It maybe was for the bright colours of for the stylish design, these small, (as big as a washing machine) greenhouses just grabbed my interest. I wasn’t surprised then, when just few weeks ago, the team reached out to us to have a well deserved spot to tell Open Electronics community their story and plans and to spread some attention – and hopefully some financial support – on their amazing kickstarter campaign (see here).

Indeed, MEG is the World’s first social, open-source indoor greenhouse, empowering small indoor growers leveraging state-of-the-art usability and technology, and allowing them to share the growing experience with a dedicated community.

The project finally sees the light these days, seeking for community support, after two years of R&D: MEG is currently on a critical crowdfunding phase, ending on April the 30th: that’s why we took the chance to interview Carlo D’Alesio, from the MEG team, to set more information out for you to decide if devoting some of your support to the project is worth, as we think it is!

[Simone Cicero]: Where did this idea come from? Can you tell us a bit about the history of the project and the story of the founders? That’s always super interesting to know.

[Carlo D’Alesio]: We’re not an investment-driven entity; Yradia is an innovation consultancy firm dedicated to the lighting world. MEG is not a “startup project”, but something merging our skills and our passions. The very beginning of the MEG has been and independent research we run on Lighting Spectrum optimization to maximize the PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation) for indoor growing.

Then we thought about controls; then about everything but lighting. Then to the overall experience and politics of self-growing. Shortly the whole thing went out of control – and here we are…

MEG project

[SC] Can you tell us a bit more on the technical side? As you know this is a place for hackers! Let’s highlight a bit of the technology solutions that you created.

[CDA] Lighting and oshw-minded product engineering is where we did our best, coming from Lighting and Industrial Design backgrounds.

The Light Engine sports 144 SSL sources, divided in 4 PCBs. Each PCB has 36 sources in this matrix:

  • 8 RED 630nm + #8 Deep-RED 670nm – on “R” Channel;
  • 4 Far-RED 730nm – on “FR” Channel;
  • 8 Deep-BLU 455nm – on “DB” Channel;
  • 4 BLU 485nm – on “B” Channel;
  • 2 Amber 595nm – on “A” Channel;
  • 2 Green 530nm – on “G” Channel.

Spectral details are clearly evidenced in the Updates section in our Kickstarter page. All diodes are single-wavelength emitters. The “RGB” term for us is taboo – makes us nervous.

MEG’s Light Engine, which we designed from scratch, comes as a compromise between two things: “State-of-the-art” and “Democracy”. Currently, first-class LED lighting for growing is expensive or hard to find – not talking of cheap crap you find on the Bay, but i’m relating to professional gear for the mass growing industry.

All the Growing Plan related features may be sensed and tuned: we’re talking about Air Circulation, Heat generation and recycling, Ultra-sound based Humidification, NPK-based Nutrients distribution, Watering, Temperature and Soil PH sensing, near-field Bluetooth operation, far-field GPRS/WIFI operation – yes, you may operate and manage from remote a stack of interconnected MEGs. How about surveillance cameras and anti-theft alarms then?

There’s plenty of other details, for which we provided detailed infographics on our KickStarter page; there’s also the video which is worth thousand words!

[SC] Who’s the target? I mean what use do you expect people to do with this solution? Just playing with parametric, indoor agriculture? Are there more general scenarios you may already know and have evaluated? I would totally use to grow my fresh spices :D. Tell me the truth, you’re aiming to veggie geeks :)

[CDA] Users may be divided in two big areas: private users and big players. The latter include University research and Educational purposes in general, as well as small and medium-sized private laboratories. For them, MEG would be an easy, cheap, beta testing machine to be used before buying or activating much expensive gears or processes – I’ve personally seen grow rooms worth 200K+EUR.

For a single user, MEG is a bit of an investment, although the price tag of 3’500 EUR seems still appropriate for such an comprehensive and performing system. Scenarios may be Research, Education, Gourmet Cuisine, Growing in hostile environments (how about Sun and Soil in an alaskan mission?), Space Farming (NASA presented it in 2013), Medical plants growing, Recreational plants growing, Plant Collector business (saw rare small cactuses sold for 10K+EUR).

[SC] Can you tell us a bit more of what you envision in terms of the analytics that will be possible to apply to the (hopefully huge amount of) data that’s going to be generated by the MEG geeks?

[CDA] We have this vision we call “Growing Automation”. What if data would really help us to improve growing, starting from the bottom? Imagine Growing Plans going selectively more and more precise over time. Imagine of allowing non-growers to just press Play. Imagine self-tuning growing algorithms. What if we’ll start a collaborative global cloud on Phytotherapy plants?

[SC] Which are the projects that actually inspired you guys to start MEG?

[CDA] I’d say one of the real drivers was that because no one told us so. We also love the overall “energy” of the whole scene, rather that something in particular.

[SC] We know you’re going to be open source. First of all what kind of license are you considering for Hardware designs and electronics? Will this project be “buildable” in a Fablab or makerspace?

[CDA] Yes to be buildable. Yes to deliver source files of Hardware and Software – 100%. As said before, MEG is not our “core business”. Please allow me some clarification here: we need KS campaign to be successful to finalize the project and preparing the Source Documentation. This will be an activity we’ll be able to afford only if we win this KS campaign. To get up to this point, we bootstrapped from our activities a sum of money which – at least for us – is already too much (tens of thousands euros). MEG is a self-innovation project combining our skills (Industrial and Lighting Design), and our passions (IoT, Growing, Open Knowledge). Please also consider that MEG is a complex and delicate project, involving Design, Engineering, Implementation and Construction development of items in the following fields: Photometrics, Mechanical and Industrial design, Electrical design, PCB design, GUI+Ux design and several Arduino-related applications.

MEG

[SC] Do you plan to sell also the electronics control board just in case someone wants to build it’s own greenhouse and you your “brain”?

[CDA] Maybe only the PCB board, because it contains the technology we provided and because sourcing the LED diodes may be tricky. Actually the Brain would be much easier to replicate than the LED PCB.

[SC] How is the MEG back end for collecting data going to work? Is also that going to be open source apparently: will I be able to download the data management platform and install it on premise? If yes what license did you choose for the software? will I be able to collect data on my own in private? Will there be cost associated with using the collaborative cloud services?
Also, would be very nice to know if the cloud platform will be open.

[CDA] Too early to tell. Sorry to say that, but the final setup depends by the money coming from the KS campaign that we’ll be able to re-invest. In case of KS victory, MEG and all the related data will be open.

[SC] Do you surely know about Smart Citizen project? They recently partnered with the awesome guys from Open Source Beehives (See the interview here) in doing something similar to what you’re doing.

[CDA] We met the guys at SC in Rome at the Maker Faire 2013, we exhibited in the same area. They’re force IMHO is that their shifting the power to sense and judge a city’s environment quality from the authorities to the People. That shift is the revolutionary value of SC. Open Source Beehives is something I see for the first time, really interesting as well. On a first glance what I can tell is that both of them are “more agile” than our big, heavy, expensive, tech-packed Greenhouse – saying this just as a lesson learned for the future.

[SC] Would you like to tell something more to our readers?

[CDA] Thank you for having read until now. Question authority. Acquire knowledge. In case you’d like to, having this URL circulating will be of great help for us: bit.ly/kickstartermeg. We’re very responsive on @YradiaLighting and on Facebook so feel free to get in touch!

Thank you Simone for this feature!

If you liked the interview:



and Stay Tuned!

About Simone Cicero

Simone Cicero is a blogger (at meedabyte.com), strategist & speaker. Simone is also a long time Open Source advocate and Open Source Electronics editor. Follow him on twitter at @meedabyte