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Origami-inspired robots mimic the behavior of plants

In a groundbreaking approach to environmental sensing, researchers Suyi Li from Virginia Tech and Ian Walker from Clemson University are developing robots inspired by plant behavior. Supported by a four-year, $840,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, their work aims to deploy sensors in challenging, often inaccessible environments.

Li, an associate professor in mechanical engineering, and Walker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, are exploring the idea of creating devices that mimic native plants. 

Learning from the plant kingdom 

Li expressed his initial surprise in robotics: “When I started to venture into robotics a few years ago, I was surprised to see that almost all robots are inspired by humans and animals to some degree. However, I believe the vast plant kingdom can offer us many unique lessons on approaching the design, actuation, and operation of robots. This is how Ian and I started working on this topic together.”

The researchers’ goal is to create robotics capable of surviving in wild conditions for long periods. They plan to utilize principles from the plant kingdom, such as the ability of sunflowers to move with the sun or the opening and closing mechanisms of floral organs like those in a venus flytrap. 

Novel forms of soft robotics 

Li’s team specializes in using origami principles to create novel forms of soft robotics, while Walker brings extensive experience in biologically inspired robotics.

The challenge lies in merging sophisticated electronics with the unpredictability of nature. Traditional technology often fails in dynamic outdoor environments due to battery limitations and component breakdowns. Li and Walker’s solution is to develop robots that can adapt and respond to their surroundings, similar to how plants do.

Highly dynamic environments

“As humans, we naturally tend to think of change on the time scale of our attention span, like seconds and minutes. However, long-term and continuous deployments outdoors pose alternative and unique challenges,” Walker explained. 

“Over weeks and months, outdoor natural environments are highly dynamic places. Vegetation grows up and debris comes down in storms. Robotic operation in these conditions needs to become more like the ambient environment in novel ways to maintain monitoring.”

Robots that mimic plants

The new approach involves creating accordion-like robotic trunks that can unfold and self-lock, capable of adapting within congested spaces that may form as foliage grows. The robotics will also incorporate mechanisms that mimic tree leaves and needles, equipped with sensors that guide operation and adaptation.

Powering these robots is a critical aspect, and the researchers are looking into energy harvesting methods that mimic real plants. This approach would allow for long-term operation without the need for human intervention in changing batteries. 

Study implications 

Li and Walker are also considering the specific requirements for different deployment durations, tailoring their approach based on whether the robot is tasked with monitoring pollution levels over years or rare animal sightings over weeks.

“When monitoring city environments, having static devices is not a problem because the environment is controlled. But in areas like coral reefs or forests with dynamic and volatile surroundings, having a robotic plant that can grow and adapt with its environment instead of needing to be replaced and moved by humans will revolutionize how we are able to study and monitor remote regions,” Li said.

This innovative research promises to open new frontiers in environmental monitoring, offering sustainable and adaptable solutions for studying and protecting diverse ecosystems.

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