Robotic Plants Could Be Coming to Your Garden

Scientists are developing technology mimicking intricate root systems to monitor pollution and improve food safety.

(Photo: Courtesy Plantoid)

Oct 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

When looking at gardens, landscapes, or forests, it’s easy to focus on what’s visible. Flowers, green grasses, and large trunks are the pretty parts, but below the surface is where plants and trees show their smarts.

Roots spread out, hold fast to the soil, and transmit information to the branches above, telling them which direction to grow, how long to go, and when to drop leaves. They’re also incredibly efficient at piercing the soil.

It’s an intricate system, and now a group of Italian scientists have created a robotic plant that mimics nature’s root system to monitor soil pollution, prospect for minerals, and look for water.

Meet the first plantoid.

(Photo: Courtesy Plantoid)

It’s made of artificial materials, embedded with sensors, and equipped with a computer chip, a plant robot designed to simulate a real-life tree—trunk, branches, leaves, and all.

But the real stars in this fake-plant show are the roots, which really “grow.”

“We want to use robotics systems to better understand the living systems we use as a model,” said Barbara Mazzolai, a biologist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. She’s spent three years designing the plantoid so it can copy the way plant root tips grow and move through soil based on what they find in the environment.

So how does it work?

A motor unwinds a spool of polypropylene filament inside the trunk. The root tips—which are made of Teflon—have nine sensors each that can measure a range of a soil conditions. Those include levels of water, light, gravity, temperature, and pH. The plantoid can also detect the presence of nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium.

The roots grow based on the information received from sensors via a microcontroller in the tip. If it works right, the plantoid could be used in agricultural fields to detect heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium.

(Photo: Courtesy Plantoid)

“It’s like a new microscope that biologists can use as a platform to study natural systems,” said Mazzolai.

Her team has a few kinks to work out before we start sending plantoid Roombas into our gardens. The first hurdle is to get the roots to move and bend simultaneously. To do that, she says, they are looking for the right Velcro-like material for the filament.

“This is the most challenging part to solve,” she said. While the plantoid is not ready for commercialization, Mazzolai is asking companies to explore the ways it could be used in industry.

Some examples? In search and rescue missions, Mazzolai said, a plantoid could send out root hairs that would help to anchor rubble and keep it from falling.

Another application could be in the field of surgery, where the biomechanics of the root tip could be applied to an endoscope. It could grow and move inside the body without damaging tissue and might be able to release drugs, Mazzolai said.

In space, a plantoid root system could anchor spacecraft and act as an exploratory arm to sample soil quality on other planets.