The revolution of plantoids | The research project will end in 2022
Robots are usually inspired by humans and animals. But the very last
frontier is the ‘plantoids’ – plant robots able to move and explore the
environment with their smart sensors. Their ‘mother’ is researcher
Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5h4Cmk-6n8
grapevines of the Italian region of Tuscany gave food for thought to
researchers based in Pontedera, near Pisa, who developed the first soft
robot that mimics the behaviour of tendrils. The artificial device, made
of the common plastic PET, can curl around and climb a support as the
real vines do to secure their position.
This is the second plant
robot created by the international research team of the Center for
Micro-BioRobotics at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) led by
Barbara Mazzolai, a biologist with a PhD in engineering.
they developed the first plantoid in the world. It has sensitive leaves
and smart roots that copy the way plants get their nutrients or avoid
danger without using eyes and muscles. The tips of their roots have
sensors that track light, humidity, temperature and nutrition. To move
in soil they have to grow, adding cells to their structure. To reproduce
this growth, the plantoid uses a 3D printer.
"This has been a revolution in robotics, because the robot can create
its own body and move towards another stimulus of interest, using
manufacturing technologies. So, layer by layer, it is the robot that
builds its body." Besides its use for environmental monitoring in soil,
this robot may be a flexible, growing endoscope in a human body, or even
a space explorer of alien worlds, thanks to his ability to dig, implant
itself and adapt to new external conditions.
She adds: "In our
future we will have climbing plants. This is a new project called
GrowBot. They must move against gravity and not with gravity. So the
challenge is to generate more suitable, perhaps more flexible, materials
for this, while having a mechanism to allow the robot to move against
The artificial tendril works using the same physical
process of water transportation in plants. At the bottom of the robot
there is a polysulfone tube containing a liquid with electrically
charged particles (ions) and acting as an osmotic membrane. This tube
snakes in-between layers of carbon fibre fabrics, which work as
electrodes. When the unit is connected to a 1.3 volt battery, these ions
are attracted to the surface of the flexible cloth where they attach
themselves. The moving particles cause the liquid to flow and,
consequently, the tendril starts a coiling motion. The robot can also
perform the opposite movement when the battery is detached.
ability of vines to adapt to the environment is copied by the robot,
paving the way for a series of applications: from wearable, flexible
orthopaedic supports able to follow the needs of the patient during the
rehabilitation therapy, to tendrils equipped with sensors or cameras
used to monitor pollution or to rescue people.
had to fight hard against the prejudice that there can be only humanoids
and animaloids. In 2012, thanks to the visionary EU programme called
Future and Emerging Technologies (FET), she found the money to start her
research on plantoids: "Without the EU programme FET, this study would
not have had a future because there was prejudice. The common opinion is
that plants do not move, they do not perceive the environment.
Consequently, the question was: why should a robot imitate a plant?
FET, first with PLANTOID and then with GrowBot, has led to unique
research, because we started when nobody was investing in this. It has
now become an idea that other groups around the world are starting to
The research project on the new artificial tendril will end in 2022.
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