How does electrical engineering inform off-planet food production?

There are many ways to engage with space. One required skillset, if humanity is to establish a more permanent presence off Earth, is electrical engineering. This skillset is of course important for building rockets, satellites, and communications networks. It is also important for what may be a less obvious application: food production. Humans need to eat, and food production off planet will likely be in controlled environments. Electrical engineering can play a critical role in helping maximize output while minimizing input requirements and waste. To learn more about electrical engineering’s relevance for off-planet food production, we spoke to Davi Souza. He studies at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and also works as an engineer for Habitat Marte, a Mars analog project in Brazil. He is developing Habitat Marte’s greenhouse.

What relevance does your background in electrical engineering have for food production in controlled environments?

As the worldwide population grows, the demand for food also inevitably grows. To make more food production feasible requires implementing new and green technologies. Such technologies will help us create more efficient farming systems that increase productivity and safety in food production on Earth. They will importantly help avoid losses, reduce costs, and save resources.

Electrical engineering relates to the development of intelligent machines and operating systems. Electrical engineering is important for artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things–linked sensors, and many other technologies. Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) integrates these technologies to grow crops inside high-performance controlled environments for food production. CEA entails using automated processes and optimized systems to improve sustainability and make more efficient use of inputs and outputs. 

My experience in electrical engineering focuses on automation. My research focuses on using smart solutions to solve problems in the water-food-energy nexus. By using embedded technologies, I work to develop solutions to monitor and control agricultural activities.

What has been your involvement in Habitat Marte, the Mars analog project in Brazil?

My involvement is based on research conducted by Julio Rezende, who is Habitat Marte’s coordinator. In order to build self-sufficient human settlements on Mars, those settlements will need optimally operating life support systems to provide food, air, and water. Those systems will need to be autonomously operated but also open to manipulation by astronauts through protocols and routines. Such systems will ensure reliable life support on other planets.

My contribution to Habitat Marte involves developing routines inside of Habitat Marte’s greenhouse, which is called BioHabitat. Using technology from Arduino, a hardware and software company, I developed a control and monitoring unit to collect meteorological data about the farming environment. I also worked with the aquaponic system, which was installed to generate data and assist in mission routines. During the operationalization of the BioHabitat greenhouse, I had the opportunity to research and learn about topics related to CEA.

For research outcomes in Habitat Marte, we focus on sustainable food production throughout the analog missions with the use of support technologies like sensors and automation. We develop and implement protocols to improve the habitat’s sustainability. The BioHabitat has successfully operated for over a year. Its operation has generated many useful results about plant growth, which can inform potential future development of greenhouses off Earth.

Why are you interested in food production off Earth?

I believe human beings were born to explore the stars. From the beginning, stars have guided us. On Mars, we will face a universe of possibilities that we cannot now imagine but which we will be willing to discover. Space research is here to aid that discovery. Space research generates knowledge, finds solutions to problems, and inspires people to humanize society. When we think about studying another planet, we open a horizon of new possibilities and challenges that we will need to face. For me personally, working on space matters has brought a new world view to my daily life: we need to be more regenerative! Science helped me to see this. We need to worry not only about exploring other planets, but we also need to find ways to take care of our own planet and to have a better relationship with the ecosystem here on Earth.

In my research, I have noticed that space is not far from our daily lives. Thinking about space can engage communities here on Earth to achieve sustainability through innovative projects. I believe Habitat Marte is one of those projects. When considering agriculture in space, we use concepts related to agriculture here on Earth. When we deal with plant growth systems for extreme environments, we must implement efficient models to generate more outputs with less impact and waste. If we can develop such systems, they will not only help feed astronauts in space, but they will also help us overcome problems here on Earth, such as hunger, food security, water scarcity, and the climate crisis. Today, my main goal is to bridge the gap between space and society. I want to positively impact people’s lives through space exploration. I want to develop solutions capable of achieving sustainability on Earth and, in the future, in space.