Pan European Networks undertook some research into the unusual development of robotic plants and was pleased to learn that symbiotic relationships between plants and robots were being explored by European scientists.
Furthermore, the flora robotica project, which has received funding through the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 framework programme, had gone on to develop plants whose growth and movements can be influenced with electronic commands. These plants promise to expand biodiversity in our towns and cities, and can be used in the development of environmentally friendly, energy efficient, sustainable buildings within which future generations may live and work.
PEN spoke to project leader Dr Heiko Hamann of the University of Paderborn, Germany, to find out more.
How did the relationship between artificial intelligence and plants develop?
Parts of our consortium work in the field of so-called ‘mixed societies’, where researchers investigate the possibilities of putting robots and animals together. Successful applications of mixed societies have shown that robots can influence the behaviour of cockroaches, chickens, fish and cows. For example, it was shown that a group of robots can persuade cockroaches to aggregate at a different place than what they would naturally prefer. We were wondering whether a similar approach could be applied to the mixed society of robots and natural plants. It turned out that nobody has ever worked on this, which is what makes it an original and exciting, but also challenging, research project.
What connects robotics and plants with society and the built environment?
In the above terms, robots and plants are supposed to create a society of their own, with strong coupling and many interactions already within our project. In addition, we also want the flora robotica system to interact with human beings. One aspect is to use the system as a communication channel between humans and plants. The robots can help to detect the status of the plants and help them to signal stress or scarcity of resources.
The combination of a distributed robotic system with plants opens up a vast number of application opportunities, such as automatic greenhouses, pest control and monitoring. Instead of picking one of these obvious choices, we want the robots to permanently influence the plants and make them grow in unnatural ways. For example, we want to control their growth and motion in order to grow desired shapes and forms. This is the connection to the built environment as we want to grow architectural artifacts.
In what ways will people and society benefit from intelligent plants co-existing in their living space?
The flora robotica system helps people to better understand their plants, which we believe is important because our whole society runs on plants – a fact that is easily ignored. In addition, our robots will help to multiply opportunities in all of these exciting new trends and ideas, such as urban/vertical gardening, open agriculture and green infrastructure. An intelligent plant can combine the advantages of growth in optimal conditions, growing food, growing shapes with architectural function, and creating good vibrations.
Do you feel the project will benefit urban spaces more than rural areas? If so, what dynamic will flora robotica contribute to improved urban spaces?
Yes, absolutely. Our focus is on urban spaces. Intelligent plants will help us to create more livable spaces, to grow living walls and furniture, even houses, and new ‘social gardens’ that foster city lives and living together in crowded conditions.
Still, the rural areas can profit from the very same technology as mentioned before. Automatic gardening and monitoring based on distributed robot systems also seem a promising approach that is currently taking off.
What further developments do you anticipate in the future development of robotic flora, or for robotics more generally?
With ever-growing cities on this planet we need concepts to more tightly integrate plants into urban areas; it will be very beneficial to use cutting-edge technology for that. For us it is clear that robotics has to have a leading role in this development. It seems that robotics is now prepared to help us in many different ways.
The new developments of modern artificial intelligence in combination with improved hardware components will flood our world with robots. We should not only think of mobile robots or robotic arms but also of static robots with rather limited actuation, such as light, sound, vibration, and slow movements. Those robotic devices will cover a vast scope of functions due to a multitude of robot-robot interactions, sophisticated sensing, and intelligent control.