Robot-plants: A meeting of plants and machines

Like many living things, Venus flytraps rely on electrical impulses to close their distinctive barbed ‘mouths’ when trapping prey. Now, researchers could use this to help farmers communicate with their vegetation.

Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) may have cracked the age-old problem facing farmers: how do I know the condition of my plants in an easy way through sheer observation alone? The answer revolves around wiring up Venus flytraps with electrodes and creating effective ‘robot-plants’.

Wired for the future

Once wired up, these ‘robo-plants’ are now capable of having harmless electric signals sent through their cells, triggering them to close on command at the simple press of a button on a smartphone app. The ability to open and close on command is incredibly useful at helping farmers quickly ascertain whether plants are diseased in some way.

As a result, plants such as Venus flytraps could become natural stress detectors, helping monitor levels of pollutants and toxins in soil or water. Think of them like green canaries in the agricultural coalmine, alerting farmers to signs of trouble, offering up a form of visual communication between plants and humans. Researchers involved in this project assure readers that the plants aren’t harmed through the use of electric impulses.

The plants can also become effective ‘robots’ when attached to robotic arms, if ordered to open and close around light objects. At another press of that button, the plants can act as effective hands which can grip said objects and catch small falling ones with aid from the arm. The aim of using plants for such tasks could be for use in operations requiring a delicate touch, offering a greener way of handling fragile objects likely to be damaged by industrial grippers.

The future of robotics is green

The whole field of robotics at large is undergoing a green revolution in its own right, with machines being adapted for purely industrial use towards more helpful pursuits such as tidying up the environment. In 2018, MIT perfected a machine called Elowan which interfaces directly with a plant housed within itself and could help optimise its chances of growing strong and healthy. Elowan would do so by using electrical signals to move in a spider-like fashion towards sources of light.

The result would maximise the plant’s ability to grow, and create what is effectively another form of robo-plant, where a machine is able to communicate directly with a plant to meet its needs. Admittedly, this merger of plants and robotics is a fairly new scientific field of discovery, and much is yet to be learnt.

What is certainly clear is that the future of robotics has an intriguing symbiotic future with nature. Rather than being abstract and purely artificial, machines have the potential to be woven into the fabric of biomass itself.

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