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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 the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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