XAG webinar explores growing crops on Mars

14-10-2020    14:51   |    Future Farming

Plant scientists and agricultural experts dove into solutions of growing crops with Martian soil, as well as developing a closed agricultural ecosystem on Mars through the use of autonomous farming technologies, such as drones, robot, and internet-of-things.

Chinee drone manufacturer XAG recently hosted an international webinar (watch the video below) on Mars farming. Plant scientists and agricultural experts from Wageningen University & Research, XAG, ID Capital Pte, and VCearth dove into the solutions of growing crops with Martian soil, as well as developing a closed agricultural ecosystem on Mars through the use of autonomous farming technologies, such as drones, robot, and internet-of-things.

Earth as hostile as Mars

Justin Gong, Co-founder of XAG, considers the Mars adventure as a strategic vision to solve sustainability issues. If problems such as climate change and loss of biodiversity keep exacerbating, it is possible that Earth might one day become as hostile as Mars. We need to take wise precautions early on and harness the power of technology to sustain human life in the future,” Justin Gong added.

Change the future of agriculture on Earth

Isabelle Decitre, Founder & CEO of ID Capital Pte, sees the innovative Mars farming solution as a product of multi-disciplinary fusion. “We could think of Mars as the extreme environment of Earth, which helps us take in new insights and push the limits of inventions to change the future of agriculture on Earth.”

A XAG Agriculture IoT system operates in the desert. - Photo: XAG

Growing potatoes on Mars

Does the “The Martian” method of growing potatoes could work in reality and what are the crop species most likely to thrive on Mars? Dr. Wieger Wamelink, a senior plant ecologist of Wageningen University & Research addressed these questions by proving the feasibility of growing Martian crops.

Since 2013, Dr. Wamelink has been leading a research project “Food for Mars and Moon” that, for the first time, utilises Mars soil stimulant provided by NASA to cultivate crops. So far, he and his team have made a significant breakthrough in successfully growing and harvesting nine different crop species, including tomato, radish, rye, peas, and leek, under greenhouse conditions.

Simulation soils

The simulation soils come from the volcano of Hawaii, whose texture and composition resemble those of the real nutrient-poor Martian regolith, lacking in reactive nitrogen and containing a high level of heavy metal and perchlorates. It was previously believed that Martian soils were uninhabitable for plant growth.

Comparative experiments with 14 crop species

Dr. Wamelink said his team conducted comparative experiments with 14 crop species, using Earth river sands as well as Mars and Moon soils stimulants mixed with organic matter as fertiliser. “Some seeds started to germinate within only 24 hours, then flowered and borne fruits as usual as normal earth crops.” The vegetables grown from Martian soil stimulants were tested to be safe to eat without traces of metals.

Potatoes grew very well in the experiments. From the perspective of plant biology, this carbohydrate-rich vegetable is most likely to serve as the first dish if humans set foot on Mars, he added.

“Potatoes not only taste good and show many health and nutrition benefits, but also easy to grow and take up less space. Even under greenhouse environment less desirable for plant growth, we could still harvest a batch of potatoes in 10 weeks. On Mars, all the construction works would be extremely costly and difficult, so it means a lot to secure food production if we could grow crops in large quantities with less space.”

The "Hungry Mars Webinar" panel, with clockwise: Xiwen Qing, Justin Gong, Wieger Wamelink and Isabelle Decitre. - Photo: XAG

Unmanned farms on Mars

Scarcity of agricultural labour would be a major challenge when it comes to terraforming Mars. This provides opportunities for the existing unmanned farming technologies, said Justin Gong.

According to Going, developing hands-free farms on Mars would first involve the construction of intelligent greenhouse, followed by the supply of fertile soils and water resources. The entire operation, from seeding, crop management to harvest, would be hands-free. This would require a large number of automated equipment.

Fully autonomous agricultural drones and robots

But the problem is that machines cannot be remotely controlled in real-time since it takes more than 20 minutes for radio signals to travel the distance between Earth and Mars. “In this case, we would need agricultural drones and robots that could operate fully autonomously and precisely to spray crops, spread fertilisers, and pollinate the plants. Meanwhile, the IoT and AI systems could collect and analyse multi-dimensional farm data on crop growth, soil condition, and microclimate to identify various problems, assisting future Martians with scientific farming decisions,” Gong said.

Growing crops with Martian soil stimulants at Wageningen University & Research. - Photo: XAG

Closed-loop agricultural ecosystem

The introduction of microorganisms and pollinators would also be required to create a sustainable closed-loop agricultural ecosystem on Mars. This is what Dr. Wamelink and his team attempt to investigate in the latest phase of Martian soil experiments, with focus on adding human urine as source of struvite to improve crop yield.

According to Dr. Wamelink crop cultivation could only be carried out in a smart greenhouse. “We could consider introducing bumblebee as insect pollinators, while leveraging fungi, bacteria, and worms to decompose organic matters that allow recirculation of nutrients in the Martian soils. Future Martians would play an important role in this cycle where their faeces could be reused to stimulate crop growth,” he said.

Click below to watch the full webinar.

Source: Future Farming

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