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Arduino based Automated hydroponic lettuce seeder

A fully automated lettuce seeder using stepper motors, vacuum pump, vibrator and plenty of 3D printed parts

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We run a small hydroponic lettuce farm on our rooftop and need to plant about 600 lettuce seeds per week. This took between 2 and 3 hours to do it manually, seed by seed. The new seeder does this in about 4 minutes per 150 seeds and is fully automatic. It uses 2 stepper motors, a vacuum pump and a vibrator motor and is fully controlled by an arduino.

We run a small hydroponic lettuce farm on our rooftop and need to plant about 600 lettuce seeds per week. This took between 2 and 3 hours to do it manually, seed by seed. We recently built an iPrusa 3D printer and I got inspired to build something to speed up the process. The printer itself gave me plenty of ideas on how to move the X axis. The idea is that the foam block which is already precut into cubes slides forward row by row, while seeds are sucked up from the seed tray by a pipette attached to the rotating PVC tube. The tube is connected to a small vacuum pump. As the tube approaches the seeder tray a small vibratotion motor switches on below the tray to shake up the seeds, making it more likely for them to get stuck to the pipettes. This the rotates to the drop point, which are basically 3D printed cones that force the seed into a small hole thus making the positioning more accurate. At the point the small vibrator switches on again briefly, causing a small shake that dislodges any seeds stuck in the cones.

I designed the entire thing in sketchup and the exported each part to a separate file either for 3D printing or to have laser cut.

The prototype is working and if there is Interest I would be happy to share the full project details and source code here or on GitHub so others can replicate it.

To see the first trial run in action see here:

And the final working model here:


stepper1test.ino

This is the Arduino source file. You can enable a serial debug terminal by uncommenting the #define

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  • 4 × LM8UU 8mm linear bush ball bearing For the foam tray holder
  • 2 × Mechanical endstop switch RepRap For homing the X and r axis
  • 4 × SK8 bracket 8mm To hold the rods that the linear bearings slide on
  • 2 × 500mm smooth SD rod 8mm Rails for the bearings
  • 1 × 12v 10a power supply Switch mode power supply

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  • Seedlings video tour

    Akash Heimlich01/09/2017 at 01:31 0 comments

    To complete the explanation on how this hydroponic system works I am sharing a short video of the seedlings and how they look after a week.

    I realise the pipes look a little grungy, I did not clean it all up before making the video, sorry!

  • Seeing the results

    Akash Heimlich12/29/2016 at 02:08 0 comments

    This is not just a virtual project that will sit on my desk (actually, it probably will remain on my desk) but has real world applications. I wanted to share a link to our rooftop hydroponic project that showcases the research and progress we have made with DIY low cost solutions for rooftop farms.

    Rooftop Hydroponics


    These foam cubes hold the seeds and plants for their entire life cycle. They grow in a PVC or other NFT channel with a small film of nutrient rich water constantly flowing through, supplying all their dietary needs.

    Using this hydroponic lettuce seeder will save us hours a week on the planting. I will take a few pictures of the whole process from seed to plant to illustrate it better in an upcoming post

  • Working Model

    Akash Heimlich12/25/2016 at 12:26 0 comments

    I managed to tweak some of the settings and it now sows seeds in just under 3 minutes. I had to figure out a few things which I explain in the youtube video below.


    The interesting thing is that different seed sizes work differently - although the vacuum nozzle is rather small, it still has an affinity for larger lettuce seeds and tends to not always work with smaller or rounder seeds.

    All in all this project is pretty much ready, if anyone wants info on how to replicate it you can always contact me.

  • How it works

    Akash Heimlich12/18/2016 at 01:57 0 comments

    The seeder has two axes, the X axis where the foam block moves on and the r or rotating axis, which moves seeds between the seed tray and the drop point.

    We did various trials using foam as a medium to germinate seeds for a hydroponic NFT (nutrient film technique) system, based on visits to various hydroponic farms in south east Asia, and we realised that just placing a seeds on top of the foam cube works just as well as inserting them into a groove in the foam. Therefore, the only challenge is to get one or two seeds and place them at the center of each 20mm cube. We had a mold made and we die cut the foam so that all of the cubes are easily separable without damaging the root system when the seedlings are ready for transplanting.

    The size of the foam block is about 21x31 cm and contains 10x15 block, so a total of 150 seedlings.

    The X axis tray is basically just a flat acrylic sheet that needs to move back and forth so that each seed row is aligned with the drop point. And endstop is installed at one end that is used to home the system at startup. The X stepper motor is mounted on one end, below the main plate. Three pulleys form a loop, one pulley is mounted below on the opposite end to the stepper and two at the top. The belt is pulled tight and screwed to a 3D printed part that also screws into the moving tray, so that it can go back and forth on the linear bearings with a movement of about 30cm totally. The rails are 8x500mm SS rods.

    The R axis rotates about 300 degrees, back and forth. It consists of a PVC 1/2" tube with holes drilled into it. The first attempt was a 3D printed bar but for some reason I was never able to get sufficient suction from the nozzles, I assume it's due to the pla filament and the gaps between the printed rows. I did epoxy it but it didn't help. So, I cut up syringes and glued the end part into the holes in the PVC pipe. I the removed the needles from the small needle ends and stuck a plastic pipette tip onto it. I tried using needles first but the vacuum suction and the sharp tip often caused the seeds to get poked and stick to the needle tip.

    One end of the pipe is blocked with a 3D printed plug. The other end has a 3D printed nozzle which joins to a flexible hose connected to the vacuum pump.

    The PVC pipe rotates on a small round 3D printed part on each end that it fits into - I did not go with bearings and tried to make fit as tightly as possible while still allowing rotation. A 3D printed gear slides over the PVC pipe and connects to a stepper motor below the main plates using a timing belt.

    The final part is a small 3D printed stopper that also fits tightly onto the pipe and presses against the endstop directly over the drop point. It is also used to set the zero position at startup.

    The seed tray is 3D printed as well and just sits on a horizontal acrylic bar, so that it is easy to switch out different seed types. I glued a small vibrating motor to the bottom of the seed tray to allow the seeds to jump a bit. This makes it easier for them to be picked up and also helps to distribute the seeds more evenly throughout the tray.

    Below the main plate is where everything is mounted. At one end there is a power supply of 12v 7a. There is a 4 channel relay board with only 1 relay currently used to switch the vacuum pump. Two buttons are also mounted onto the board to start and stop the operation in case of issues. Then there is the vacuum pump, the stepper motor drivers, the two stepper motors, and the arduino and home brew shield. That is the most ugly part right now, I will make a proper pcb when I get some time.

    I just finished spray painting the various parts in bright red, which is what I happened to have at the moment. I am assembling the final prototype and will post pictures of the build process.

    This is the base plate from below with all the electronics mounted onto it.

  • First prototype

    Akash Heimlich12/14/2016 at 02:00 0 comments

    I will be compiling a list of parts and posting them here as soon as I get time! The machine is currently operation but I want to beautify it and take some better pictures for the project page

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