Danny Rankin: Hacker, Farmer, Technologist, Designer

Danny Rankin is a farmer, designer, artist, instructor, musician, hacker, coder, craftsman, husband, veteran and visionary. And this spring, he adds Master of Science in Technology, Media and Society from CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute to his credentials.

“He doesn’t fit any single box,” says Ruscha Cohen, co-director of the institute’s graduate program. “Everyone in ATLAS knows and respects Danny. He embodies so much of who we are as an interdisciplinary institute.”

And Rankin will be extending his ATLAS stay, teaching several classes in the fall as an adjunct instructor, as well as continuing to mentor students in the institute’s Blow Things Up Lab.

He’s just not ready to leave, he says.

“BTU is made up of people who don’t like to fit into one box,” he says. “They are self-motivated people who like to make things all the time; and I, too, put myself in that category.”

For Rankin, “that category” means building things with electronics. Experimental things. Useful things. And sometimes, weird things.

Rankin invented a mobile chicken house that follows grazing cow herds. Chickens subsequently peck at the manure,  reducing fly larvae and improving soil fertilization. He tried it out on his farm east of Boulder, and it worked well until it was destroyed in a windstorm. But he’s not deterred.

“The farm has become a laboratory for me,” he says. “You can mess with stuff at the BTU Lab, but you can’t find out if it really works until it gets rained on and stepped on by animals.”

His most recent project is a room-sized, working model of the Internet that transmits ping pong balls around the BTU Lab, sorting them by color. “It’s hard for people to conceptualize how the Internet works, so I built something they can see at work.” He also relished the design challenge of mechanically sorting the balls by color and sending them to the right destination.

The Road to BTU

Rankin first became involved with the BTU laboratory as an undergraduate student. But he almost followed a different path.

Skilled in both piano and bass, he planned to major in music as an undergraduate. When he auditioned for CU Boulder’s College of Music, a professor advised him to continue playing music, but to choose a different major.

He’s grateful for that advice. It’s how he found his way to ATLAS.

“I immediately fell in love with hacking and building circuits and doing weird projects with electronics,” he said. “The BTU lab has been my home ever since.”

In the BTU lab, Rankin was encouraged to pursue his personal interests, and he explored his passions. A farmer himself, he wanted to help farmers and ranchers gain control over how they used agricultural technology, without having to worry about being sued by Intellectual Property owners for modifying the technology.

As an undergraduate, he developed agricultural sensors that detect soil temperature and moisture, giving farmers real-time data about their land. His work is rooted in an Open Source Hardware methodology, where documentation on how his devices are created, fabricated and programmed are publicly available. Anyone can use or modify the hardware as they wish.

“Having a space where you work on your own interests rather than a class project was fundamental,” he says. “I would have never pictured myself doing this kind of research, but the ATLAS community made it happen.”

Rankin’s technology reduces labor costs for farmers, he says. Instead of needing to drive from field to field or hiring extra farm hands to assess the condition of crops, his sensors provide continuous feedback, he said. By providing farmers with such tools, they will be better able to manage their land and the commodities they’re producing.

“For me, sustainable agriculture is not only environmentally sustainable, but also human sustainable,” Rankin says.

In the future he hopes to work in creative fabrication design.

“I want to custom build for anyone who has weird ideas that they want to turn into reality,” he says. “I really just like hands-on work. That makes me super happy.”