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August 10th, 2013 at 9:30 am

Robot plants can learn how to grow just like the real thing

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Soon, plants may have robotic counterparts. Barbara Mazzolai from the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa and colleagues tips that grow by unwinding material and a mechanism to reduce friction when penetrating the soil. The artificial system will be equipped to detect gravity, water, temperature, touch, pH, nitrate and phosphate.

 

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Modelling a growing root is complex because it bends while increasing in length, adding cells on the opposite side from the direction in which it is heading. At the same time, a root perceives several physical and chemical stimuli at once and prioritises them; how it makes these decisions is not completely understood. “The mock-ups and prototypes we’ve developed aim to validate some of the functions and features of plant roots,” says Mazzolai.

In addition to mimicking a single root, the team is also looking at how roots interact with each other, coordinating their movements through soil. “New findings could be the basis for novel swarm intelligence,” says Mazzolai.

The system could produce more energy-efficient robots that can adapt to their environment. An obvious use for plant-like robots is environmental monitoring in soil, but their knack for exploration and ability to anchor themselves could have applications in space.

They also have potential uses in medicine, for example as flexible, growing endoscopes that can move easily inside a human body. “The ability to bend, grow at low pressure and with low friction while adapting to the surrounding environment could offer a new vision for medical tools,” says Mazzolai.

The system was shown last week at the Living Machines conference in London.

Via New Scientist

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