Researchers are building intelligent plants for the green cities of the future

The EU-funded project “flora robotica” aims to merge two essentials for our future life on earth: technology and nature. Following a simple yet radically new idea, an international team of researchers is taking the first steps toward intelligent plants that can sustainably grow our built environment - from public spaces and buildings to entire cities.

Computer scienceResearch

Imagine a society where robots and plants could communicate: Robots telling plants where to steer their growth and plants signaling their needs for water and light to the robots. Through the robots, humans could join the conversation and get information on how the plants are doing or tell the plants to grow in a different direction.

 

This may sound a lot like science fiction, but it is in fact the vision behind flora robotica, an EU-funded research project started in 2015 by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from four countries.

 

The IT University of Copenhagen is one of the six partners involved in the project, which is coordinated by the University of Paderborn, Germany. ITU is responsible for developing the robotic elements of the flora robotica organisms as well as the algorithms that control how these elements are combined with and react to plants.

 

“The way to make the symbiosis work is that we are able to measure how the plant is doing. It seems we can measure how fast it grows, how much water it evaporates and so on. That could influence us to say ok, the plant is not doing so well, we need the robot to help the plant. At the same, we want to build a robot system that is compatible with the plant system, and we are trying to understand how to build these two systems together,” says Kasper Støy, Professor at ITU.

 

Watch a video about flora robotica here:


Intelligent plants create livable cities
By creating robot-plant interactions, the team of researchers is trying to make plants grow in innovative ways. These “intelligent plants” could grow into growing living walls, furniture, even houses, and contribute to making our urban environments more livable and sustainable. flora robotica sets out the future for current trends such as urban and vertical gardening and the concept of green buildings and infrastructure.

Additionally, the project will help people to better understand their plants, which is essential because our society still runs predominantly on plants – a fact that is easily overlooked. An improved communication between humans and plants is a side effect that allows both sides to benefit.

 

Sensors enable robots and plants to communicate

To establish communication between robots and plants, the researchers combine a variety of different sensors. They apply ready-to-use sensor technology, such as proximity sensing and vision, but also develop new technology, such as biomass sensors based on electromagnetic fields, transpiration sensors, and sap flow sensors.

 

The robot partner of a plant is either stationary or slow-moving to match growth rates of plants. Still, the control mechanisms of the robots are fast, and they are able to influence plants by high-intensity LEDs and vibration motors. The researchers use blue light to attract plants via phototropism, that is, a plant’s innate tendency to grow towards visible light. Alternatively, they use far-red light (between the spectrums of visible red light and infrared light) to propel plants in the opposite direction.

 

In the same manner, the researchers can limit growth in a desired area. In the experiments, the researchers have successfully tested the interplay of robots with a variety of plant species, including bamboo, bean, banana, ficus, tomato, and cress.

 

Robotic plants and adaptive architectures for our well-being

Besides the usual engineering objectives of maximizing functionality, performance and robustness, flora robotica has another important design goal: creating open-ended, adaptive and inherently resource-balancing architectural systems.  

 

Ultimately, the project aims to merge humans, machines and plants into a symbiotic ecosystem that is both novel, fascinating, functional and aesthetically appealing.

 

“In the future, we may be able to construct from collaborative people, robots and plants, architecture that is self-repairing, self-growing, and can adapt to changing needs,” says Mary Katherine Heinrich, PhD Fellow at The Centre for Information Technology and Architecture.

Further information

Kasper Støy, Professor, phone 2814 1648, email ksty@itu.dk

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk