The world’s first robotic vine twists and climbs

Working principles of a robotic vine. Source: Istituta Italiana di Tecnologia (IIT)

Materials scientists at the intelligent materials lab of the University of Tartu have been working with artificial muscles for years, but now they have found a new path – robotic plants. They have indeed built an absolutely unique robot that imitates a botanical vine, able to twist and climb.

Indrek Must, Associate Professor of Soft Robotics at the Institute of Technology of the UT, said that he became inspired to go into plant robotics because the behavior of plants is a largely unexplored field, promising new dimensions and novel possibilities in robotics. Earlier, the materials researcher had been involved with building robotic bugs, in addition to developing artificial muscles.

Taken more broadly, the goal of plant robotics is to imitate processes happening in nature. Although we mostly think of plants as stationary, they do have interesting moving mechanisms. Robotics are being used to imitate such mechanisms.

Compared to common approaches to artificial muscles, the goal is easier to obtain, as it is possible to imitate the turgor pressure of a plant, while the way an artificial muscle works is quite far from natural conditions.

With a robotic vine, one can imitate a mechanism used by plants to move and later develop it, resulting in robots that are useful to humans. This invention can be used in every field involving robotics, from medicine to technology.

A description of methods for the technology of the robot vine was published in the Nature Communications journal, in cooperation with scientists of the Italian Institute of Technology. In the following video, researchers from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) demonstrate the way in which the robot vine works:

Biological vines enable the building of robotic models that essentially function on the same physical and chemical working principles as the plants. Of necessity, the principles must be substantially simplified and more specialized. The functioning and structure of a tendril has been written down now, as the associate professor researched it scrupulously for his article.

“The tendril has a wonderful ability to explore its surroundings in an elegant manner, making circular waves. If the “foothold” doesn’t fit, it lets it go and finds another one,” Must said.

“If we want to make a robot that will be attached to a person or put into them, then firstly it must be as harmless as possible. No high voltage or dangerous chemicals must be used to control the robot. The production method of plant robotics has a unique combination of chemical, physical, and electrical aspects, which artificial muscles don’t have. Here, plants come to our aid, being physically and chemically relatively harmless – often even edible,” Must added.

The soft robotics researcher already has patents for producing artificial muscles on embroidery hoops, a differential electroactive moisture detector, as well as sensor materials.

Mariana Kukk is a master’s student at the University of Tartu and wrote this popular science article for the course, “Interpreting and Representing Data.” The Estonian version of this article was originally published in Novaator.

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