A robo-vegetal hybrid society is rising

Plants can grow elaborate shapes for public spaces through a network of sensors and 3D-printed robotic nodes


A society made up of robots and plants functioning as a self-organized, distributed cognitive system could soon design gardens and build some of the most innovative architectural structures ever.


Finding new ways to introduce green surfaces in urban landscape is becoming fundamental to improve the quality of life in cities. Photo by Jamie Whiffen on Unsplash.

This is not the plot of a sci-fi film. A new artificial hybrid life form has been created to meet the demand for more sustainable and greener urban areas – a robot-vegetal society where robots and plants can grow together in a co-dependent and self-organised system. The robo-vegetal symbiosis could form novel architectural structures and open areas offering shade and stress relief, as well as managing air quality.


This is the aim of the flora robotica project funded by the EU Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). But how can researchers implement such a complex and futuristic technology? How can self-organized life form without any top-down control?


The project tries to make the most of different kinds of plant tropism, which are mechanisms that plants use to adapt to environmental changes by growing towards or away from a stimulus. Phototropism, for example, describes how plants lean towards light sources. Gravitropism describes how they respond to gravity and (mostly) grow upwards. Thigmotropism is how plants sense objects by touch, growing around lattices and poles like familiar garden peas.


The project builds these growth profiles into the robot modules which are connected to the internet wirelessly, and so shape the entire structure using appropriate scaffolding, watering and different stimuli including human interaction. A network of sensors, computers and 3D-printed robotic nodes will constantly monitor the plant growth, gathering inputs to program the next set of stimuli.


“The growth is for free, but we have to control the plants to grow in the shapes we want,” explained project coordinator Professor Hamann, during an interview for Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation Magazine. The flora robotica team uses a white plastic scaffolding with black strips woven into it, containing LED lights and sensors, to guide the plant growth.


But what is the ultimate vision of this open-minded project team? Creating social and internet-connected green spaces, autonomous but distributed. They should grow in different geographical locations, far away from each other, receiving local and global stimuli and giving life to new urban spaces and structures. This idea could shape living cities that adapt themselves to our needs in a new, symbiotic coexistence.


To face the issues emerging from such a challenging and futuristic idea, the team working at this project includes cross-disciplinary specialists from the fields of computer science, robotics, molecular and cellular biology, zoology, advanced mechatronics, environmental monitoring and architecture.


The €4M flora robotica project consortium involves seven partners and is coordinated by the University of Lübeck, Germany.


Cover image by Luca Florio on Unsplash