Robotics from the Roots

(June 20th, 2014) Closely mimicking the intricate designs created by nature have greatly benefited technological advancements. Now, the EU-funded project PLANTOID plans to take it to the grass roots, creating robotic systems based on the energy efficient and adaptive models found in plants.

If you were to do a simple web search for robotic systems, you can classify most of the results into three main categories. Humanoids or robots that resemble humans, robots inspired by animals and the basic automation systems that put together our cars or get into war zones and fight. Soon there will be a new category of robotic systems based on plants if the goals of the EU-funded PLANTOID project were to come to fruition. The project started in 2012 as a collaboration of four different universities from Italy, Switzerland and Spain at a cost of little more than two million euros. Started with the aim of designing, developing and building robotic systems that take their inspirations from plants, the project has already delivered its first prototypes.

Robotic systems play an imperative role in our everyday lives, though unnoticed at times. Most factories have robots working beside humans in their assembly lines. They aid surgeons in carrying out precision surgeries at hard to reach crevices of the human body. Self-driving cars are zipping across city roads sharing lanes with fellow motorists and cyclists. But how intelligent are they when it comes to interacting with their environment. Will they be able to sense touch, temperature and other stimuli while making adaptive decisions in real time based on the information received from different parts of their robust metallic body?

This is where the intricate and beautiful workings of a plant can teach us humans about adaptability. As Barbara Mazzolai, the project coordinator from the Center for Micro-BioRobotics at the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), explains in an interview with Research*eu, “Plants have rarely been considered as a model of inspiration for designing and developing new technology - especially in robotics. This is probably due to their radically different operational principles compared to animals and difficulties in studying their movements and features. As a consequence, plants are often considered as passive organisms, which are not able to move, to communicate, and to escape from a hostile environment.”

But there is lot more to the humble plant than what meets the eye. For example, plants are excellent diggers and they reach greater depths underground by growing longer roots through addition of cells to its tip. Such growth, though random in its appearance, is the result of the plant’s high sensing capability and adaptability to external stimuli.

Deriving inspiration from the structural and functional properties of the plant system, the very first prototype of the PLANTOID project included two new root systems. One of them emulates the growth process of the root by adding new material and thereby penetrating the soil, while the other puts to use its capabilities of bending in three directions and sensing temperature, humidity and touch. These two root systems are part of a larger trunk module that serves as the brain of the prototype. It includes a microcontroller that handles processing of all sensory information received from the root and also takes care of communication.

The future goals of the project include integrating all the above mentioned features into a single root system and putting them into use by developing novel applications. This can range from intelligent plants able to monitor soil quality and contamination levels to medical applications such as flexible endoscopes that can steer through the human body. Intelligent leaves with photovoltaic cells can also be created to maximise solar energy conversion.

“Another important question we intend to address is whether plants exhibit intelligent behaviour. A simple definition of plant intelligence could be adaptively variable growth and development during the lifetime of the individual. Exploiting adaptive abilities in plants could lead to the development of smart devices - not only with the ability to sense, but with the capability to follow stimuli and take decisions to accomplish the required tasks,” Mazzolai added.

Having completed two years of its three year timeline, the EU funded PLANTOID project is highly expected to bear fruit soon.

Ganesh Vasan

Image: Fotolia/Xent

Last Changes: 08.14.2014