Robot-Plant Biohybrids Growing in European Laboratories

I don't know what a robot-plant biohybrid is, but I'm sure there's a horror movie in there somewhere

2 min read
Researchers are developing robot-plant biohybrids
Photo: Flora Robotica

Flora Robotica is a project funded by the European Union whose goal is “to develop and investigate closely linked symbiotic relationships between robots and natural plants and to explore the potentials of a plant-robot society able to produce architectural artifacts and living spaces.” The overall idea seems to be that it would be cool to enhance the capabilities of plants by mixing in some robotics, and vice versa, combining plant growth with the structure and mobility of robots. Sure, why not?

Flora Robotica researchers are developing robot-plant hybridsPhoto: Flora Robotica

The researcheres, from six research groups based in Poland, Denmark, Germany, and Austria, emphasize that their motivation is not automating gardening or harvesting using robots, which is something a number of robotics companies has focused on before; they aren’t creating plant-robot hybrids for artistic purposes either (we’ve seen that in installations like the Telegarden, built in 1995, and, more recently, the Jurema Action Plant, among others).

What the European researchers want to do is basically using robots to provide support and guidance to plants, so those plants will be healthier and more robust, and they’ll also be somewhat trainable: They’ll react to the stimuli coming from the robots, allowing you to incorporate them into living, hybrid structures like benches, walls, and roofs.

The robots are implemented as hardware modules that allow to implement an artificial growth process and to keep pace with the natural growth of the plants. These robotic assemblies support the biological plants through appropriate scaffolding and also support the plants in maintaining homeostasis. The robot modules are able to control the plants by appropriate stimuli that exploit the plants’ different tropisms (e.g., phototropism, hydrotropism, gravitropism). The natural plants, in turn, support and control the robots by guiding them through growth and support their weight in later growth phases.

This all sounds a bit hand-wavy, so let’s take a look at what they’ve been working on over the last year:

And here’s a video showing a specific experiment in which the researchers explore control of plant growth and motion:

It’s hard to see where all this is going, to be honest, but the vision is intriguing, and the EU has funded this research through 2020. This really is basic research, though, so don’t expect to move into a roboplant-walled home anytime soon. The researchers say “growing house-sized plant-robot hybrids in the real world is out of the timeline of this project.” Drat.

[ Flora Robotica ]

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

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An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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