LettUs Grow – low carbon food of the future

LettUs Grow was founded in 2015 by three Bristol University Students – Ben Crowther and Charlie Guy (Engineering Design) and Jack Farmer (Biology).

As a company they wanted to tackle some of the biggest problems facing the planet, by reducing the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce. Their solution was to design and develop aeroponic irrigation and control technology for indoor farms. On World Food Day, they share their thoughts:-

Global warming and greenhouse gas emissions are two of the defining problems of our generation. Agriculture is a big piece of the puzzle, producing a third of global emissions. But the problem of global food security is much more than just emissions. A stable food supply is a fundamental human need and there is a severe lack of innovative solutions to help feed the next generation.

A common misconception about plants is that they only “breathe” through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots.

We knew things needed to change, so we devoted ourselves to finding food-focused solutions. By combining our backgrounds in engineering and biology we’ve found innovative ways to help indoor farmers scale up their operations to compete with traditional agriculture. Our novel technology builds on the successes of hydroponics and addresses many of the issues which have been holding back indoor farming.

A common misconception about plants is that they only “breathe” through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots. By suspending our plants’ roots in the nutrient dense mist rather than in water, we’ve overcome some of the problems faced by hydroponics. Because they’re not submerged, plants can respire optimally during their whole life cycle. Using this system, called aeroponics, we’ve seen up to a 70% increase in crop yields over hydroponics.

The UK was ravaged by storms and snow from February to March, scorched by months of temperatures exceeding 30°C.

Chard growing in one of the aeroponic grow beds

As is often the way, aeroponic growing’s biggest strength can also be its greatest downfall. Most systems produce their mist by pushing nutrient-rich water through strips of nozzles. The small holes quickly become clogged with falling plant debris and a buildup of salts and nutrients – much like how limescale forms inside a kettle. We’ve developed a system without any nozzles, so there is nothing to clog and break.  Alongside our patent-pending hardware, we’ve also developed an integrated farm management software system, called Ostara®, which reduces labour requirements, optimises conditions for plant growth and makes farmers’ lives easier.

The incredible weather of 2018 has shown the need for this sort of technology. The UK was ravaged by storms and snow from February to March, scorched by months of temperatures exceeding 30°C during the summer and more snows are predicted before the end of the year. These extreme weather conditions put an enormous strain on farmers. They’re faced with the choice of swallowing their losses or increasing their prices – something tricky to do when at the mercy of supermarkets!

If you’re keen to see one of our aeroponic grow beds in action and learn how we can help feed the next generation, come visit us at the People’s Tech on Saturday 20th October in the Engine Shed. We’ll be there along with another agri-tech startup, the Small Robot Company, who’re replacing bulky inefficient tractors with small robots. Tickets start from as little as £3 and can be bought from here: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/peoples-tech-october-tickets-49245025196.

Visit the LettUs Grow website for more information.

From India to the UK: Top tips from an international student

Starting university can be daunting at the best of times, but even more so when you’re studying overseas and leaving your home country for the first time.

That’s what Indian student Samia Mohinta faced when starting her MSc in Advanced Computing last month. Samia has thrown herself into life in Bristol and has some advice and insight for others in a similar position…

Hello readers,

Are you having cold feet – terrified to leave your home country? Or have you taken the big leap, but missing home? Keep reading! This post lists all that I found useful while coming to the UK and after two weeks of being here.

This is my first time anywhere outside India. I am an avid traveller, but stepping out of India, to go to a place for a year without family and friends, did freak me out. So, trust me, I can understand how you all are feeling. Don’t worry, you are not alone.

Here are a few tips to help organise yourself and shake off the blues before and after you travel to the UK:

  1. Prepare beforehand: If you are planning to study at the University of Bristol, get an idea about the city before you arrive. Bristol is hilly, so start working on improving stamina, because you’ll need a lot of that when you climb up to reach your lectures. There are quite a few blogs on the city of Bristol and reading one of those will give you sufficient information of what the city is like. Currently, for me, it’s fantastic.
  2. Review your goals: Think and write your aspirations on a page. Judge your potential. The Indian model of imparting education is very different from here. Unlike in India, you won’t be spoon-fed with information and details all the time. You need to be self-motivated and alert to grab the opportunities that come your way.
  3. Understand the course you are going to take: Go through your course modules and check if you understand what it’s about. This is very important. I have seen a lot of my friends dropping out of courses that they chose without self-judgement of potential. Follow your interests and think about your existing experience and skill set.
  4. University of Bristol flags at Heathrow airport
    Reach out for help: If you are travelling alone from India to UK, reach out to people if you face any problem. Don’t panic. Speak to your co-travellers, even if you don’t know them and ask for advice. You shall definitely find someone travelling to the same or a nearby place. Team up! I myself had a four-hour delayed flight, which led to a lot of problems after landing in Heathrow. I reached out to the University representatives, who were present at the airport, bus stops and train stations, and got my issues sorted.
  5. Only pack for one week: Don’t fill your bag with unnecessary stuff. Bring dry food to last a week. Pack some cooked food, just to soothe your cravings. Bring hoodies, warm jackets, gloves, mufflers and sweat shirts. Also pack a few cottons and summer dresses. If you can, pack a pressure cooker or a rice cooker – extremely useful to prepare a quick meal. Carry some cloth hangers and air-tight tiffin boxes as well.
  6. Indian food: Do not carry a lot of Indian spices because you can get everything in the supermarkets. But I shall ask you to pack a small amount of flour or rice for making chapattis or rice, so that you do not need to rush to a supermarket immediately after you arrive. There are a lot of Indian restaurants all around the city, pop in to satisfy your occasional cravings. Take a bus to Easton and find loads of Indian stuff.
  7. When in Britain, do as the British do: Try and get a brief idea about the British culture. You should know how to greet people when you meet them. In India, we usually don’t shake hands, but here it is a common courtesy. Be polite and friendly.
  8. Make new friends: I know it sounds weird. You cannot just be friends with someone after a tiny chit chat. However, meet a lot of people. I am not suggesting you to jump into parties, but during uni hours speak to your classmates and get to know each other. You can join a few societies or clubs (there are nearly 200 clubs and societies in UoB) and make a few friends. Get out of your comfort zone and shake a leg at a dance taster session.
  9. Exploring Bristol harbourside
    Explore Bristol, reduce boredom: Bored with sitting at home? Grab a backpack and put your travel shoes on. Time to explore Bristol! Bristol boasts of beautiful parks, hot-air balloons (I am personally fascinated with these), Ferry rides at the Harbourside, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (loved the view from it), Museums and some fantastic graffiti decorating the walls of the entire city. Get a student’s one-day bus pass for £3 and explore the Bristol inner zone. You can also buy an outer zone pass that lets you access Bath and Bristol completely for a day.
  10. Take your modules seriously: Go to the lectures. Don’t get unnerved if you find the first few a little difficult. Read the materials and ask for help from your professors. There are dedicated teams for mental health in the University, who can help you cope with the study pressure. A lot of Indians study at UoB as well, reach out to them via the Indian Society and share your worries.

Life is all about taking risks. Sign yourself up for an adventure every day and reap the satisfaction it brings. This new world in Bristol is a lot different from yours back in India. It is way more organised. It is also extremely welcoming. Be confident. You shall shine!

Thank you for being with me till the end.

PS : I shall come back with some other fun stuff about my adventures in Bristol. Stay tuned!

Student well-being

There are many options at Bristol if you need any support settling into University life or just need to chat to somebody. Find out where to get help here.

My mental health: An honest chat with Professor Dave Cliff

Dave Cliff, Professor of Computer Science, talks about his experience with a break down in his mental health. How catastrophic thinking, panic attacks and the stigma around mental health made his life miserable and how he came through the other side.

Talking about your mental health (good, bad and everything in between) is something we really encourage and we’re proud that our staff are leading by example. If you’re a student and need to talk to someone about your mental health or get some support you can talk to the teams in your school office, or find more resources on the University of Bristol website. If you ever need a chat you can contact the Samaritans 24/7  no matter who you are. 

“People said I was brave”

Dave talks about people’s reactions to  the video and the bravery of asking for help

I once made a video, or should I say: a video was once made of me. It was a talking-head interview, about the time I had a breakdown. Severe anxiety and depression; suicidal thoughts. It’s seven minutes long, and I speak maybe a thousand words.

I did it because I was asked to do so by a colleague, an old friend, who was putting together material for a new non-credit bearing elective course that would be made available to all students at The University of Bristol, where I work. I didn’t give it much thought, didn’t know what questions I would be asked and didn’t rehearse any of the answers. We shot it in one take, maybe 25 or 30 minutes in total, and then the video production folk went away and skilfully edited it down to a more manageable length. Once the final edit was released to our students, and to the rest of the world on YouTube, I started getting feedback, comments — people saying nice things about it — and in those comments something caught me by surprise. There was this one word that got used a lot when people commented on what I’d done, a word that I didn’t expect at all. People said that I was brave.

I’ve thought quite hard about this and, given this opportunity to write about it now, almost 18 months since we shot the footage and more than five years since I got sick, I’d like to explain why I don’t think I was brave at all. Or, at least, why I don’t want to be thought of as brave for making a video.

Should I first introduce myself? I’m a Professor of Computer Science at The University of Bristol, a role I’ve been in for the past 11 years. Prior to that I’d held professorial posts at Southampton and at MIT, plus I’d spent seven years working in frontline industrial artificial intelligence R&D for Hewlett-Packard and for Deutsche Bank. But what I’m writing here isn’t about my CV. Let’s get back to this bravery thing.

If someone was cycling too fast, had an accident, broke a limb, received medical care, took time off work to get well, and came back fixed, that’d be pretty routine. What if that person then made a talking-head video about what happened, how they’d been riding too fast for too long and how after the accident they don’t ride quite so fast now, quite so recklessly, now they know how painful the end-result can be? Would we call that person brave? I think not. When I made this video I didn’t for a moment think that I was being brave, because it shouldn’t be an act of bravery to talk about what is, after all, an experience that very many people go through and in which for many people, like me, the story ends well. I was just doing what I wish many more people would do, talking openly and honestly about mental health. I got sick, dangerously so. I sought help and got good care, for which I remain very very very thankful indeed. And I got better. And then I told people what happened. How does me telling that story mean that I’m brave?

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t work out this way for everyone: some people suffer from chronic mental health issues that go on for a very long time, lifetimes even; some people don’t find, or ask for, the right help in time; their stories may not end nearly so as well as mine. In these senses, I was lucky.

As far as I’m concerned, me telling my story wasn’t a brave thing to do at all. It was an act of thanks, a little celebration of my recovery. Like getting back on the bike and going for a ride and enjoying the wind in your face and laughing out loud that you’re once again able to do something you love; that you’re fixed, the bad times are behind you, that you’re well.

Looking back over the whole sequence of events, if I had to choose one thing I did that I do think of as brave, it was the moment when I was first sat facing my doctor, took a deep breath, and spoke honestly about what was going on inside my head. Before I could get a word out I was in tears and could barely talk. But I knew I had run out of road, that I’d lost control and that I couldn’t deal with the situation alone. For me that was an extraordinarily difficult step to take, one that I very nearly didn’t. I am so glad that I did, and I guess I’m writing these words in the hope that maybe they’ll encourage someone else to take that first step, to reach out and ask for help. In my opinion, that’s the brave bit: the bit when you ask for help. No video required.

Writing this has made me think quite hard, and I realise now that when I spoke to my doctor that was the first time I’d said those words out loud. I was talking as much to myself as to the medic: it was my first admission, not just to my doctor but to me, that I was in a desperately bad way; the first time I said that I needed help. I wasn’t just telling my doctor I was sick, I was telling me too. For me, that was the really difficult part. If ever I was brave, that was the brave bit.

I’m very glad I took that step but it was not at all easy. If my video encourages others to take the same step when they’re in a bad place, to be brave enough to admit they need help and to seek that help, then I think it will have been useful. I hope that it is.

 

Formula Student is go go go!

Formula student team University of Bristol

The world’s largest student engineering design competition is back. We spoke to Engineering student Harry White about the Formula Student project and being a part of the Bristol Electric Racing team

The team showing off the car at last’s year University Open Day

Formula Student is a long-running international competition where the best engineering students across the world design, manufacture and race open-wheeled single seater formula styled vehicles. The vehicles produced by some of the top teams are truly astounding feats of engineering, with some cars able to accelerate from 0-60 MPH in under 1.5 seconds! The big finale is the head-to-head race at Silverstone, where the teams battle it out to find the overall winner.

Chief Engineer, Harry White, explains the uniqueness of this project: “This competition is one of the best opportunities available to university students to experience a complex, real-life engineering problem that requires analytical thinking, design and team work.”

“It allows students to develop important skills that may be less focused on in a classical engineering degree, such as business, marketing and cost analysis.” He continues “We’ll be working hard towards developing our business and marketing case, with the goal of ranking amongst the top teams next year.”

The team’s workspace, in the shadow of a helicopter!

This year’s team are currently building their first car to compete at the 2019 competition. Harry updates us on their progress: “We have most of a rolling chassis, with only a few modifications still required to produce a product that fundamentally works. The next steps this year will be to develop the powertrain, which is no small task, and to continue developing the rolling chassis until the car can drive under its own power. From there the next task will be an extensive testing and commissioning stage. There’s a significant difference between a car that can move and a car that can race.”

One of the great benefits of the project is for the students to work equally as part of team, with all members having the opportunity to contribute significantly to the design. As Harry points out: “There’s a lot of design involved with creating a car from scratch, and this means that younger members of the team can contribute in a way that would be almost impossible in more established teams.”

Importantly, there’s the social aspect of the project: “Working as part of a dedicated team, all focused on achieving the same goal, leads to a tight-knit group of friends, between different years and courses; a social dynamic that is difficult to find elsewhere.”

As Harry sums up: “Formula student is an amazing opportunity that gives real engineering experience and is as rewarding as it is demanding; at Bristol Electric Racing there is the opportunity for anyone who is motivated enough to do great things.”

You can follow the team’s progress on Facebook. 

Best of the Impossible Garden (so far)

The Impossible Garden is a set of new experimental sculptures, by artist Luke Jerram, inspired by visual phenomena. The exhibition is a collaboration with Bristol Vision Institute and aims to enhance our understanding of vision. All summer visitors have been exploring the garden and discovering engaging art exhibits, designed to stimulate debate about how visual impairments can affect our perception of the world around us. We gathered some of the best Instagram shots of the exhibits so far.

 

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By Luke Jerram

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Just a little glimpse of @lukejerramartist’s Impossible Garden at @brisbotanicgdn 🌿

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A taste of the glitch bench; this and many other exhibits designed to challenge your ideas of sight in the #impossiblegarden

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Think you can do better? The University of Bristol Botanic Garden is a riot of colour as the season change, so grab your camera. The Impossible Garden is open to the public until Sunday 25 November 2018. Open from 10 am until 4.30 pm, 7-days-a-week, including bank holidays. For those with visual impairments, we have audio and braille copies of the brochure available.

Find out more about the Impossible Garden.

Year in Industry with EA Piling in Uganda and Kenya

Engineering Design student Joe McFarlane has just returned from his Year in Industry in Uganda and Kenya. As well as having a significant impact on the company’s processes and submitting a range of successful tenders, he spent six months project managing a landing bay project. Joe was the youngest and most senior person on site, managing a team of 50 people. The company have already asked him back when he graduates.

Here’s Joe’s experience: 

I spent my Year in Industry working for East African Piling in Uganda and Kenya. The company specialises in a variety of piling solutions for private and public infrastructure markets across East Africa.

At first I was mainly working on design and costing proposals for upcoming projects. Services offered include rotary bored piling, continuous flight auger piling, sheet piling, soil nailing, soil anchors and pile load and integrity testing. Through the year I contributed towards 11 bids, 4 of which the company won.

After this stint working on tenders, I moved on to become the Project Manager of a new marine slipway on the coast of Kenya. The slipway extends 74m into the Indian Ocean and was constructed using a sheet pile cofferdam. At the deepest end of the cofferdam, the maximum retained depth of water was 6 m. The completed structure is 105 m long and 6.5 m wide.

We built the cofferdam using a 75 m long barge as a platform. A crane-slung vibrating hammer was used to drive the sheet piles into the seabed to the required depth. Once the cofferdam had been built, the water was pumped out using two 4-inch submersible pumps to create a dry working space. The existing seabed was excavated to a 10% gradient and back-filled with hard-core material. After this, precast concrete slabs, haunches and underlying geotextile material were placed into position from the end of the slipway up to the junction with the existing road. The final step of construction was to flood the cofferdam and cut the sheet piles at a gradient to be flush with the slipway’s haunches.

    

Despite having to overcome significant challenges over the course of the project, it was a major achievement to produce a quality product which meets all client requirements, within the specified budget and two weeks ahead of schedule.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Year in Industry, having learned an incredible amount about the design, management and implementation of engineering projects. I would recommend it to anyone studying Engineering. With the placement proving to be such a success, I look forward to working with the company again in the future.

 

Hear from Engineering Design student Topaz Maitland, who is currently on her 3rd year industry placement designing a renewable energy turbine in Nepal. http://cabot-institute.blogspot.com/2018/09/my-work-experience-designing-renewable.html 

Technical Apprenticeships in Engineering

Our Technical Services team underpins all of the work that goes on in Engineering. They are the experts who run the labs,  make the components and work the cutting edge technology we use every day.

Every year we recruit and train new technical apprentices to support the team. Mictroy talks about his experience:

Find out more about Technical Apprenticeships at Bristol: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/staffdevelopment/professional-services/technical-staff/technical-apprenticeships/

Design and make a vending machine

First year Mechanical Engineering students on the ‘Design & Manufacture 1’ unit undertake a Design and Make Project known as DMP. Students have 8 weeks, working in teams to conceive, design and build a cup vending machine. They spend three weeks brainstorming, conceiving, evaluating and selecting system and sub-system solutions to satisfy a detailed Product Design Specification. There’s four weeks on the embodiment, detail design and build planning, and one week on the manufacture and assembly of the prototype machine itself. There is a high degree of electrical system integration with electrical actuators and sensors which must be used within a programmable microcontroller environment. Students work closely in their teams, managing the project themselves, with technical assistance from staff and demonstration of actuators and sensors from technicians. Students present their final design portfolios and vending machine prototypes to external judges who award prizes for the winning group and runner-up. The week of the final build is always an intense culmination of weeks of hard work – this video give you a flavour of it!

Find out more about our Mechanical Engineering courses 

Games Day: Playing with students’ creations

Every year third year MEng Computer Science students work together in teams of six to create a state-of-the-art computer game. The groups spend up to 2400 hours between them building games that will thrill, delight or immerse the player and provide a spectacle for those watching them play. ‘Games Day’ is an annual tradition for the games to be played, showcased and marked. We spoke to senior Lecturer Dr Tilo Burghardt and students on the course to find out more.

In their games, students integrate technologies from across various computing subjects whilst flexing their creative muscles building new worlds and scenarios to explore. The CS students often work with MA Composition of Music for Film and Television students to produce the soundtracks for their games. They also get advice from industrial mentors in the games, software or media industry.

The department of Computer Science (which sits in the School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and Engineering Maths) has been running a computer games module since 1996.