Could seeds teach us how to monitor environmental parameters?

Monday, 18 January, 2021
Close-up of dandelion fluff (achenes)
I-Seed, a new Pathfinder project, takes inspiration from nature and proposes a plant-inspired technology allowing in-situ environmental monitoring.

I-Seed was selected among proposals submitted for FET Proactive Environmental Intelligence call (FETPROACT-EIC-08-2020), in subtopic B: Radically novel approaches to resilient, reliable and environmentally responsible in-situ monitoring, which looks especially for ground-breaking concepts for monitoring, analysis and management of critical resources in Europe.

I-Seed focuses on monitoring of natural processes in topsoil, air and their interface. The project builds the core of its research on bioinspired robotics, material science, artificial intelligence, mathematical modelling and hyperspectral imaging. Its aim is to develop a new generation of self-deployable and biodegradable soft miniaturized robots, inspired by the morphology and dispersion abilities of plant seeds.

What do make seeds so special? The I-Seed team gave us a hint:

Seeds are one of the most significant examples of morphological computation in the natural world, and have recently been encompassed as model for biologically inspired engineering designs, including robotics.

Seeds and their dispersal ability make part of the existential strategy of plants. Seed dispersal is one of the most crucial process in plant ecology and evolution, because it affects population persistence and colonization potential of a particular species. Since the natural resources are limited also for plants, they try their best to secure the wellbeing of future generation. In order to fulfil this need, plants developed a number of innovative ways to transport their seeds and to invade new areas.

This ability makes seeds a perfect model for robotic devices, which are meant to get information from regions, where monitoring data needed for proper data analysis have been still missing.  

Moreover, such a bioinspired technology should be able to perform in-situ detection of environmental parameters in a low-cost and environmentally responsible manner: all parts of the seed-like robots will be made of biodegradable materials.

The project coordinator, Dr. Barbara Mazzolai summarizes the idea behind the project:

“Meeting the global challenges of climate change and environment protection represents one of the most important frontiers for science and sustainable technologies. Understanding, monitoring, restoring and preserving the equilibrium of natural ecosystems is necessary to safeguard species biodiversity. With a strongly multi-disciplinary team, I-Seed aims to develop new and environmentally-responsible technologies inspired by the morphology and dispersion abilities of plant seeds to protect and improve the quality of air, water, and soil, and effectively manage natural resources.”

The 48-month project, which starts in January 2021, brought together academic and research entities from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus. The coordinating institution is Italian Institute of Technology (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, IIT).

Webinar about plant-inspired robotics

The I-Seed project coordinator, Dr. Barbara Mazzolai, director of the Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR) of Italian Institute of Technology, will also give a presentation on biorobotics during an open webinar held by the CONNECT University on 16th February 2021. You can find more information about the event directly on the CONNECT University website.

Background information

FET-Open and FET Proactive are now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) Pilot (specifically the Pathfinder), the new home for deep-tech research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the EU funding programme for research and innovation.

Picture: © Anthony, Pexels.com

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