To learn how to make robots that are self-sufficient and adaptable, computer scientists have turned to plants for design inspiration. At the Living Machines Conference in London, Barbara Mazzolai of the Italian Institute of Technology unveiled a project called PLANTOID to build a machine that grows roots - just like a plant does. A root system would be able to pull energy from the soil without relying on other power sources, such as batteries, solar or wind.
The research team will build specialized sensors to detect chemicals, moisture, soil acidity, temperature and gravity. They will also build in communication with other roots.
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The challenge is building a component that can grow, while still remaining strong. At the same time, roots don't grow randomly. Inter-root communication is what makes them spread out in neat patterns that get maximum nutrition from the soil.
That's part of the goal of the project, too. If robots are to be really energy efficient, they have to be able to draw from their environments. And for stationary robots, a root-like system would allow the machine to pull power from the environment without relying on the sun or wind.