These Robotic Plants Are Going To Be Capable Of Growth - Just Like The Real Thing

A team of scientists in Italy is working on what might well turn out to be the coolest robotics project ever. Together, they're trying to create a new breed of robots which mimics the properties of plant roots. That includes nutrient- and water-seeking tendencies, the ability to burrow into the ground and - most interestingly - the capacity for growth.

Yeah. They're in the process of making robots that are capable of growing. Talk about taking a great leap into the world of science fiction - I'm still expecting someone to step forward and reveal this as a hoax any minute now. 

But it's not. The scientists are serious about making this happen; and they've already got a (somewhat) functional prototype to show for their efforts. According to biologist Barbara Mazzolai, the development of this prototype was no mean task, and they've still very much got their work cut out for them moving forward.

The first thing they needed to do, said Mazzolai, was set out to understand how the roots of real plants behave underground. They needed to study the roots in their natural environment, and emulate the behavior they displayed. Although that sounds fairly simple to do, it's anything but.

"Plant roots evolve in a very complex environment; deep in the ground," Mazzolai explained.  "They have to apply huge pressure to grow, and they only grow from the tip through what we call osmosis. They gain mass by taking water from the soil, by absorbing elements and then by expelling materials and dead cells. At the same time they produce a kind of mucus that helps them to grow and extend underground."

After examining living roots, the scientists set to work designing a mechanism which would allow their robots to penetrate the soil by adding to their mass. Apparently, they've met with great success in that regard. The roots are indeed capable of growth. 

"Growth in nature occurs by adding material," said engineer Ali Sadeghi, "so we tried to mimic that by developing what we called 'a growing system.' We feed the robot with artificial filaments and it's able to build its own structure and penetrate the soil. So it's able to build its own body; it's able to elongate itself." 

On top of being able to grow as real roots do, the robots are equipped with sophisticated sensors made from soft and resilient materials. These sensors allow them to react to environmental stimuli in almost the same fashion as their biological cousins  The robots will naturally grow towards water and nutrients, reacting to any obstacles they encounter along the way by bending 'around' them. 

"These sensors have been designed to decode and read information about the surrounding environment and external objects; the sensors sort of know when they are being touched. They are also able to understand what is the pressure and the forces they are being subjected to," said electronic engineer Lucia Beccai.

Alright so they're self-growing robotic roots and that's awesome. What...exactly will they be used for? After all, coolness factor alone isn't really enough to make an invention worthwhile. 

According to the research team, they're hoping for a future where self-growing, flexible, and adjustable robots could help with everything from space exploration to mine clearance to brain surgery. Yeah, I'm not so sure about that last one, either. 

Either way, one thing is clear: this technology is positively groundbreaking, and as we move forward with the robot revolution, there can be little doubt that these bionic plants will be right there at the root (sorry). 

You can read more about the robot, known as Project Planetoid, here.