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Leaf sensors on the robotic plant can monitor the environment. Photo courtesy of CORDIS.
Leaf sensors on the robotic plant can monitor the environment. Photo courtesy of CORDIS.

Robotic Trees that Sense and Grow

Tree-like robots could help monitor the earth, as well as other planets. Created as a part of a new project called Plantoid, the robots have leaves that sense, roots that grow and move, and a trunk-full of electronics.

Project coordinator Barbara Mazzolai notes that while animals and insects frequently inspire robots, plant models also offer many insights. “Plants are very efficient in terms of their energy consumption during motion and this suggests many approaches that are muscle-free and thus not necessarily animal-like for the world of robotics,” she says.

The robots has two kinds of roots: some are able to add material on to their tips to grow and push through soil. Others can bend. (Ultimately, the researchers hope to be able to integrate the bending and growing functions into one root.) The leaves can sense temperature, humidity, gravity, touch, and some chemicals. The trunk, which was made with a 3D printer, houses the tree’s computer.

While the robots are not designed for any particular application, Mazzolai says they could prove useful for monitoring air and soil quality. She even envisions the robots planting themselves on other planets, to monitor the environment there.

Funded by the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies scheme, the three-year project is set to end in April 2015.

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