May 23, 2019 | Updated: 11:35 AM EDT

The Future of Plant Robots: The Plantoids Revolution

May 14, 2019 06:27 PM EDT

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Plantoid
(Photo : Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) )

Robots are usually based on either man or animals, but recent researches have been focusing more on planetoids, which are plant robots that move and explore the environment with smart sensors. The international research team of the Center for Micro-BioRobotics at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) led by Barbara Mazzolai, a biologist with a Ph.D. in engineering, has been developing plantoid technology. They have developed the first and second soft robot that mimics the behavior of tendrils. The device is made out of common plastic PET and can curl around and climb support to secure their position, much like real vines do.

The first device was made in 2015. Its leaves are sensitive and it has smart roots that mimic plant characteristics when obtaining nutrients and avoiding danger. Its root tips have sensors that track light, humidity, temperature and nutrition. Its artificial tendril works much like a real one. A polysulfone tube, snakes in between layers of carbon fiber fabrics that function as electrodes. The tube contains a liquid with electrically charged particles acts as an osmotic membrane. Once charged these ions are attracted to the surface of the flexible cloth, where they attach themselves. These moving particles, in turn, cause the liquid to flow and the tendril starts a coiling motion. When the battery is detached, the robot can also perform the opposite movement.

Mazzolai says, "This is a revolution in robotics because the robot can create its own body and move toward another stimulus of interest using manufacturing technologies. So layer by layer, it is the robot that builds its body. In the future, we will have climbing plants. This is a new project called GrowBot. They must move against gravity and not with gravity. So the challenge is to generate more suitable, perhaps more flexible, materials for this while having a mechanism to allow the robot to move against gravity."

It is not only useful for environmental monitoring in soil, but it could also be used as a very flexible endoscope in the body, or even an explorer of alien worlds, because of its ability to dig, implant itself and adapt to new external conditions. It is adequately equipped to monitor pollution or to even rescue people since its tips have sensors and cameras. It may also be used for wearable and flexible orthopedic supports that can adapt to the needs of a patient under rehabilitation. 

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