Described as innovative robotic atrefacts inspired by plant roots for soil monitoring, the project involves, besides the CMBR of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Pisa, the University of Florence, the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) in Barcelona and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and will be carried out by a wide interdisciplinary scientific consortium comprising engineers, plant biologists and computer scientists. “Robotics inspired by plants is a totally innovative field,” states Barbara Mazzolai, Scientific leader of the project and Coordinator of the CMBR of the IIT in Pisa. “The project PLANTOID aims, on the one hand, to carry out advanced studies on the behaviour of the root apices, and subsequently on their chemical-physical and mechanical characteristics – and, on the other hand, to provide models and first prototypes of robotic roots imitating them, with a specific focus on their penetrative, explorative and adaptive capacities.” In particular, researchers at the CMBR of the IIT will engage in the development of the hardware system of the robotic root, the physical sensors to be integrated into the root apices, and the actuators allowing the penetration and orientation of the roots. Furthermore, they will study in more depth the phenomenon of tropism; that is, the response of the roots to external stimuli such as nourishment and gravity. The group of the University of Florence will carry out studies on the chemical-physical communication among the roots of the plant itself, which is crucial for its coordinated growth; the group at IBEC will focus on the chemical sensors that root apices need to recognize different substances in the soil; and the group at the EPFL will develop the software architecture necessary to control the robotic structure and its sensors.
Every Plantoid will be made up of a root apex – comprising sensors, actuators and control units – and a robotic trunk, which are mechanically connected via a long structure. The ultimate aim of the project is to develop a network of sensorized robotic roots able to reproduce the capabilities of exploration, environmental adaptation and coordination typical of the plant kingdom, and to provide a model of artificial plant comparable to those found in the natural world, also in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability.