I have been experimenting with soil-less gardening and recycling water systems for a while now. These kinds of technologies are definitely easier, more practical and efficient for me to work with than other forms of traditional farming. Aquaponics, which include a stable population of fish to fertilize plants is even easier and more fun – when things are working.

It’s no fun when one is a serial fish killer.

Aquaponic tasks are repetitive in nature and the response time for plants in a garden is relatively slow, and my default behavior skews towards laziness. A bad combination for any successful urban farming endeavor. I have had many unsuccessful gardens; the only times I have been consistent and produced results is when I have had assistance from my computer. When wirelessly dialed into sensors in an aquaponic system, a computer can autonomously take over mundane tasks such as feeding fish, maintaining proper system flow, refilling water, monitoring water quality, and controlling lighting and temperature – all while notifying me remotely through my cell phone from anywhere in the world.

When I say “computers” I really mean microprocessors, or more accurately, microcontrollers, also known as single-board computers (sbc). Personal computers (desktops, laptops) have a few microprocessors in them – one for the display, another for networking and listening to peripherals, and finally, one that does the actual thinking (which is really just overkill, meant to process documents, browse the web and play games). The first rockets to the moon had less microcontrollers than my phone, and were far less powerful – one for navigation, one for making sure the engines were working, another for talking to the humans on earth, etc.

Microprocessors are mini-brains, capable of making millions of decisions in under a second. Physically, they are interconnections of millions of electronic transistors that can be rearranged to perform different functions based on binary instructions passed to them. These binary instructions are a program code, more commonly known as an application, which can monitor and control an aquaponic system. Because the different components of an aquaponic garden are engineered by hand and are directly accessible as compared to traditional farming, electronic sensors can easily be embedded in the garden’s various components. Electronic sensors allow environmental measurements to be taken that can then be transformed into electrical signals, which become the inputs for a microcontroller – somewhat like a keyboard that senses when we depress keys. For example, a float-switch sensor will float when the water in a tank is high, electronically indicating that the tank is full, and visa-versa for when it’s empty. Floating, the switch is “on,” indicated in binary language as 1; when the water drops, the switch is “off,” or 0. Microprocessors love these digits, they will suck them up like there is no tomorrow.

In short, aquaponic garden environments are microcontroller-friendly. Things that need to get done to keep an aquaponic garden running smoothly involve turning on and off the pump, refilling and testing the water, feeding the fish, etc., and all of this binary output information can be transformed into a user-friendly app, which allows one to control the system wirelessly and remotely. Aquaponic gardens are made up of inherently symbiotic relationships, and I feel that extending these relationships to electronic microprocesses are the missing link between aquaponics and the future. This “low-tech” high-tech is key to conserving the earth – a contained, biologically self-sufficient food production system, mimicking nature while relying on microprocessors. Why else would we send a robot to Mars to test rocks and dust (the definition of reliable “LoHi-tech”)?

And so: smart aquaponics are simply aquaponic gardens with microcontroller smarts