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

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

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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