I’m the coordinator of the PLANTOID project, the first European project aimed to design, prototype, and validate a new generation of robotic systems, as well as ICT inspired by plants.
There was a lot of skepticism in the research community when I first started to think and propose robots inspired by plants. Thanks to the first results obtained, plants have finally started to be considered as a model of inspiration for designing and developing new technologies.
In particular, roots are the main source of observation as they need to accomplish numerous tasks in a very efficient way. Their role is to look for nutrients and ensure the survival of the plant, and, during billions of years of evolution, they had to develop smart and efficient strategies in order to reduce energy during motion. Besides the experiments on adaptation and movement, we are exploring new smart materials and investigating new tactile sensor concepts: it is amazing to see how plants respond to environmental changing conditions, like air humidity and how materials can mimic the tissue stretch processes caused by mechanical interaction of the root with the environment!
Can plants move and communicate?
One of the most challenging tasks of the project is the observation and analysis of the biological model. Movements in plants are defined by the growing of the roots which adapt their path to ensure the survival of the plant itself. Roots usually grow into the soil, so, we don't have the opportunity to observe the growth step by step. Many variables, such as nutrients, temperature, water needs affect the experiments, needless to say that it can take some time as plants do not grow in a day.
Moreover, we cannot benefit from pre-existing models, such as animals' behavior, as plants operate with a totally different paradigm. We all know plants grow, so they "move" in the air and in the ground, but we cannot see it immediately, neither can we imagine that they communicate and are able to escape from a hostile environment. Plants can communicate even amongst neighboring plants – for instance, to warn about the presence of parasites. So, they can take decisions and react to stimuli.
Are plants intelligent?
Plants respond to stimuli, following gravity for instance, avoiding hard obstacles, or adjusting their path and distribution to look for nutrients. Each root is able to perceive several stimuli, both physical and chemical. The complexity of the elaboration of those signals is increased by the fact that many signals arrive simultaneously. Decisions among signals, often conflicting, have to be made and priorities determined on phenotypic change.
This implies a level of "intelligence" which for plants we can be defined as: an adaptive variable growth and development during the lifetime of the individual.
Fascinating ... do you agree? We are then investigating on the strategies taken by roots to decide their growing direction and the way they influence each other. Exploiting adaptive abilities in plants could lead to the development of smart devices, not only able to "feel" (sensors), but also capable to react and decide.
Can a Robot Grow?
How do we do it? We deposit layers of new materials (in the form of a polypropylene (PP) filament), adjacent to the tip of the device, to produce a motive force at the tip and a hollow tubular structure extending to the surface of the soil. The addition of material at the tip reduces friction to almost zero, favouring the penetration into the soil at low energy consumption.To a great extent, a robot can be defined as an autonomous device which has a well-defined structure not able to change or to grow. Taking inspiration from the growth mechanism of natural roots, we had the ambition of designing a robot able to grow, a brand new approach in the robotic field.
If you’re curious to know more you can check out the video that Euronews has done in our laboratories.
I’m extremely confident that inspiration from plants is one of the most promising paths to build the new generation of technologies. They have the potential to be used in many different activities such as soil monitoring, exploration on contaminated areas or mineral deposits – whether on earth or other planets – medical and surgical applications, like new flexible endoscopes, able to steer and grow in delicate human organs.
This interdisciplinary study of the plants, both from a biological and from an engineering approach can lead to the design and production of devices that could really impact on our quality of life and environment.
I pursued this research line confidently and I’m working towards a follow-up to PLANTOID. My dream is also to contribute in creating new companies that will produce devices and technologies derived from the studies of plants and plant root features.
Working within the European projects context, like PLANTOID, offers the opportunity to integrate different competences and skills, increases cross-fertilisation of knowledge, solves complex problems, as well as establishes new scientific and technological collaborations, I’m glad to be part of this and I encourage young researchers to follow their imagination and join the EU research dimension, which is an opportunity to open their minds to different approaches.
For more details, video, and updates about the PLANTOID project, please visit our web site http://www.plantoidproject.eu/