PLANTOID is the world's first robot looking for inspiration in the realm of plants

Plant-inspired robots developed as part of new project

Energy efficient plant-inspired robotic devices are being studied as part of an EU-funded project.

Stationary robots that grow their roots to sample the soil or move their leaves to sense the environment, are being studied by Italian researchers, who believe the unconventional robots could find a wide range of applications in space or medicine.

“Our aim is to design, prototype and validate a new generation of ICT hardware and software technologies inspired by plants,” said Barbara Mazzolai of the Italian Institute of Technology, who coordinates the PLANTOID project, funded via the EU 7th Framework Programme.

The researchers have developed a 3D printed prototype robotic trunk with leaves that sense the environment and roots that grow and change direction. The robotic roots equipped with sensitive sensors at the tip respond to incoming signals and bend to avoid damage by toxic substances or crashing into obstacles.

A second root demonstrates artificial growth with layers of new material being deposited near the tip of the root to penetrate into the soil.

The plastic 3D-printed trunk to which the roots are connected houses a micro-computer guiding the robot’s motions. The artificial tree’s leaves can analyse the surrounding medium and measure temperature or humidity, respond to gravity and touch, or react to chemicals in the environment.

“Plants are very efficient in terms of their energy consumption during motion,” said Mazzolai, “and this suggests many approaches that are muscle-free and thus not necessarily animal-like for the world of robotics.”

Being the first to examine possibilities of the plant-like design in robotics, the scientists believe their work could inspire companies and other researchers to develop various plant-inspired machines.

Mazzolai said the plant-like robots could serve, for example, in space mission, drilling with their roots into surfaces of other celestial bodies, or alternatively, could form the basis for futuristic endoscopic devices for complex surgical procedures.

Larger planetoids could assist in search and rescue operations while smaller ones could function as multipurpose environment alert systems, monitoring pollutants in the air, soil or water.

Backed by €1.6m of EU funding, the PLANTOID is set to be completed by April 2015. The team hopes to integrate more functions into the prototype and make it capable of learning and exploiting external environmental energy.

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