With little space for a traditional back-yard garden, Paul Langdon ’94 turned to vertical farming to grow his own produce. “I designed a vertical hydroponic garden using everyday PVC pipe and rain gutters,” says Langdon. “What makes my design unique is that it is completely do-it-yourself and you can download the instructions from my website. I’ve documented every measurement and every cut so that in a weekend, you could be gardening.”

A software engineer, Langdon took his design one step further and created a computerized system to track the water and nutrients needed by the plants. A cell phone app also allows you to monitor the system from anywhere at any time. View the full step-by-step instructions

“The biggest challenge with hydroponics is the due diligence of monitoring it, and that’s where computer automation comes in really well,” notes Langdon.  Hydroponics allows plants to grow without soil in nutrient rich water. His vertical garden uses 90% less water than a regular garden and about as much power as a laptop computer.

The design, called the Robotic Urban Farm System (RUFS) debuted at the 2014 Maker Faire in New York City. The event, which draws over 200,000 visitors annually, provides inventors and tinkerers alike an opportunity to showcase what they’ve made. 

RUFS won the top prize in the sustainability category at the Maker Faire, generating additional attention for the design from websites such as Lifehacker and Reddit, among others.

Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world began viewing and downloading the RUFS plans according to Langdon. We started getting a flood of schools and STEM programs that were building it as a part of their curriculum.”

Commercial growers on the drought stricken West Coast have also contacted Langdon to discuss the application of his technology on a larger scale. “It can scale from your back yard to a much larger size because you’re just maintaining the water quality,” says Langdon. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a 40 gallon bucket or a 40,000 gallon bucket. The PH is still the PH.”

The question that comes to mind is why not pursue a patent? “The whole spirit behind the Maker Movement is to develop a good idea and to share it,” Langdon tells the Alumni Association. “It’s about cultivating innovation.”

Langdon was recently invited to mainland China to exhibit his system and compete in a US vs China Maker Competition where he won third place. He will also unveil RUFS 2.0 at this year’s New York Makers Faire in September. “I’ve made some modifications to the controller so that it’s a lot easier to use and leverages some of the free cloud services.”

In the meantime, you can find Langdon on his cell phone tending to his crop of kale, lettuce and herbs. A farmer’s work is never done.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Dunn/Hartford Courant
Profile by Elena Lamontagne