Plantoids , robots that grow, evolve and behave like plants , were conceived and developed by Barbara Mazzolai, deputy director of the robotics department of the Italian Institute of Technology. The first example: seeds with artificial roots.
"Our work is to study plants and in particular their ability to move, communicate and interact with the environment and then try to replicate their characteristics in making the so-called plantoids, a term born in analogy with that of humanoid , that is, plant-like robots. "
Dr. Mazzolai is a biologist with a PhD in Microsystems Engineering and is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems , and I have been working for several years on a project aimed at creating a type of robot that can imitate the behavior of plants.
The project required different skills and is strongly linked to its multidisciplinarity. In fact, notions of biology were necessary to study the behavior of plants and select the most interesting peculiar abilities, skills in chemistry and materials engineering to better define the technology to be used, as well as of course purely engineering and robotic skills to design and implement robots.
The materials used, for example, must be biodegradable and have a structure that allows them to be transported and disseminated with drones.
The goal of the research
The objective of his research group is focused on the behavior of plants since they are able to communicate constantly with the environment and in perennial growth . For this reason the plantoids are thought to grow through the integration of new material and are guided by the stimuli they receive from the outside.
The peculiarity of plants is that they grow almost indefinitely from their extremities, but always in the face of an external sensory stimulus . It is not a matter of casual growth, but guided by the information that the organism itself is able to collect.
The plantoids must therefore be able to perceive external stimuli and transform them into growth aimed at adapting to the surrounding environment and exploring it by moving only the terminal part of the "roots" in order to minimize the friction and force required for movement .
“We also need to seriously start thinking about the impact these technologies will have on the environment. Today we are surrounded by technological tools that age too soon and turn into very polluting and difficult to dispose of garbage. We cannot study the environment and then contaminate it: sustainable electronics is certainly a very difficult challenge but we must absolutely tackle the problem. "
In fact, up to now, robotics has focused on being able to integrate into highly anthropized environments , the new challenge is to integrate into natural ecosystems ensuring their sustainability. The use of this new species of robot is in fact aimed primarily at an environmental cause that allows humans to monitor and possibly "help" the ecosystems within which the plantoids are used .
I-Seed: the plantoids that mimic the behavior of seeds
A first example of plantoids is represented by I-Seed , a type of microrobot whose behavior is inspired by those of seeds : they are released on the ground and penetrate it, allowing the monitoring of parameters such as temperature, humidity, soil fertility, levels of carbon dioxide and pollution level.
They are able to move their artificial roots, which act as sensors, within the soil to collect sensitive data.
Artificial roots grow by adding material to its structure by additive manufacturing . There is a motor that pulls a spool of thermoplastic material , which changes its viscosity when heated and which enters the "head" of the robot. Then there are toothed wheels that ensure that the wire is always in contact with the tip. Each new layer of wire is then heated, becomes sticky and sticks to the previous layer. In this way, the robot creates its body layer by layer, as if it were a miniaturized 3D printer .
However, human beings have always been inspired by nature to invent new technologies and, as Mazzolai herself says , bioinspiration can already be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
“Nature has inspired the human being since ancient times. In a sense, Leonardo da Vinci could be considered the father of bioinspiration. Turning our gaze to nature to innovate is a strategy that belongs not only to robotics, but to many other disciplinary sectors. Biosipirated robotics is therefore part of the biomimicry scenario, where nature is taken as a source of inspiration to solve practical problems and find answers to concrete needs. In addition to plants, we have also studied animals, especially invertebrates, which offer us many ideas for the creation of these bio-inspired robots that reproduce certain behaviors and movements of animals and plants ".
The article Here are the robot-plants: “smart” seeds and artificial roots comes from Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .