Robotics to help plants thrive in urban environments

Crowded cities aren't exactly optimal environments for plants to thrive. However, a team of EU-funded researchers is using robotics to help plants automatically grow into the unnatural shapes, sizes, and configurations that urban environments demand. As a result, cities could soon benefit from a robust green infrastructure used for everything from food production to climate control.

Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czechia
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia

Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czechia
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


 

Published: 13 July 2020  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Artificial intelligence
EnvironmentBiodiversity  |  Clean technology and recycling  |  Climate & global change  |  Health & environment  |  Sustainable development  |  Urban living
European Innovation Council (EIC) pilotEIC Pathfinder Pilot
Success stories in other languagesEnglish
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Austria  |  Denmark  |  Germany  |  Poland
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Robotics to help plants thrive in urban environments

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© willyam #297885268, source:stock.adobe.com 2020

By now we’re all well aware that the robots are coming. In fact, robots and robotic systems are already changing how we work and how we drive. Scientists are even developing robotic bees to help pollinate crops. But robotic plants? Now that just seems like something straight out of the latest science fiction blockbuster.

Yet this is exactly what the EU-funded flora robotica project intends to do.

“With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, society is quickly losing contact with nature,” says Heiko Hamann, a professor of service robotics at the University of Lübeck. “But even in ‘unnatural’ urban environments, plants could be used for everything from food production to climate control.”   

For example, if plants were to be grown vertically on an interior wall, they could help control a building’s temperature. Likewise, if plants could grow in small spaces – or even areas that lack substantial sunlight – cities would be able to unlock the full potential of urban agriculture. “Unfortunately, natural plants aren’t programmed to thrive in these kinds of urban environments,” says Hamann. “Which is why we turned to robotics.” 

Merging technology with nature

By merging technology and nature, the flora robotica project is building a hybrid ecosystem where robotics help plants automatically grow into the unnatural shapes, sizes, and configurations that urban environments demand. According to Hamann, the team has successfully identified, engineered, and tested several methods for growing plants on different scales and with different degrees of accuracy – including a single plant that is able to cover an entire wall.   

By embedding sensors and other smart technology between plants, researchers are also learning about a plant’s ability to grow in indoor climates. “With artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can now predict how a plant will behave in a specific environment and, based on this, control its motion and directional growth,” explains Hamann.

This technology has already been commercialised by Cybertronica, one of the project’s industrial partners. Their application lets users detect a plant’s well-being and make necessary adjustments to improve photosynthesis. Hamann notes that in the future, this same technology could be used to orchestrate the motion of a plant’s leaves. “Like window blinds, we would be able to externally control the position of leaves to turn a green wall transparent or opaque,” he adds.

The future is green

According to Hamann, the future is green, and the technologies and methods developed by the flora robotica project represent a significant step towards getting to this future. “The methods developed in this project will give architects and urban planners confidence in adding living plants into their designs,” he says. “Citizens will benefit too, as robotics will automatically water your plants and ensure they get enough sunshine.”  

Although the project itself is now finished, work remains ongoing. The flora robotica team not only continues to develop its technologies, they’re also working to showcase this technology ‘in action’ by building a large-scale outdoor wall. The wall, which will be covered in plants grown via the flora robotica system, can be exhibited at architectural fairs and other events.

Project details

  • Project acronym: FLORA ROBOTICA
  • Participants: Germany (Coordinator), Austria, Denmark, Poland
  • Project N°: 640959
  • Total costs: EUR  3 641 782
  • EU contribution: EUR  3 641 781
  • Duration: April 2015 to March 2019

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