They may seem pretty boring and simple from our point of view, but plants are incredibly complex organisms that sense and react to their surroundings. They've been known to use animal-learning techniques to grow towards light, and human-like decision making when figuring out when to sprout. Their normal methods of getting around are pretty slow, so to give them a helping hand researchers at MIT Media Lab have now created "cyborg plants" that can control a robot base to drive themselves where they want to go.
The researchers call their cybernetic plant "Elowan," and at a glance it looks like a pot plant with some wheels attached. But this isn't just a robot that's programmed to seek out light because that's what plants like – the plant itself is actually in control.
Essentially, plants are already natural electronic systems. Through leaves and other organs, they sense changes in light, temperature, touch, wounds, pressure and other input from their environment. They then respond to these stimuli by sending electrical signals through their bodies.
The MIT Media Lab taps into these signals with electrodes inserted into the plant's stems and leaves. They're naturally fairly weak, so the signals are amplified before passing to the robot, which then moves according to the plant's "wishes."
In their experiments the researchers placed Elowan in between two lamps and, sure enough, when they switch one on, the robot rolls towards it. This kind of setup could help make for healthier house plants that can move around in search of sunlight or water, or move themselves out of harm's way if they get too hot.
Making cybernetic plants could also help streamline the process of building robots and sensors – after all, if nature has already perfected a system that can sense and react to sunlight, why bother starting from scratch? So far, scientists have been able to turn flowers into touch controllers for a computer and spinach leaves into explosives detectors.
The team says that Elowan, which can be seen in action in the video below, is just one in a series of Cyborg Botany experiments.
Source: MIT Media Lab
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