Plants inspire robotic solutions

Researchers have demonstrated revolutionary robotic techniques inspired by plants. The techniques, which demonstrate the efficiency of plants, include a 3D-printed trunk, leaves that sense the environment and roots that change direction.

Humans understand problems and solutions from an animal’s perspective, while they see plants as passive organisms that do not do much. Now, researchers have reminded that plants do move and sense, and they do so in extremely efficient ways.

The PLANTOID project, funded via the Future and Emerging Technologies scheme, aims to show that humans can learn a lot from plants. It will see the design and validation of a new generation of ICT technologies inspired by plants, which could be used in agriculture, medicine and even space exploration.

Barbara Mazzolai, of the project, says: “Our aim is to design, prototype and validate a new generation of ICT hardware and software technologies inspired by plants.”

The PLANTOID prototype was designed with two functional roots: one root demonstrates bending capabilities, responding to input from the sensors at the tip of the root. A second root demonstrates artificial growth.

Mazzolai explains: “Layers of new material are deposited near the tip of the root to produce a motive force, penetrating the soil.”

She adds that the robot grows by building its own structure and penetrates the soil. The roots are connected to a trunk housing a micro-computer. The trunk itself is made of plastic and was produced using a 3D printer.

Finally, just like natural leaves, the ‘leaves’ of the PLANTOID robot include sensors that can assess environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity, gravity, touch and chemical factors.

Backed by EU funding worth 1.6 million euros, the PLANTOID project is the first to design and develop robotic solutions based on plant models. The prototype is not meant to serve a particular application, but represents a demonstration of new robotic techniques.

However, Mazzolai says real-life applications in the future could include detection and assessment of pollutant concentrations, such as heavy metals, or nutrients in the environment, as well as mapping and monitoring of conditions in terrestrial soils. Plant-like robots could also be suited to space exploration, following sensory leads while adapting to potentially harsh external conditions.

PLANTOID researchers are due to complete the three-year project in April 2015.

Photo credit: cobalt123/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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