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Biohybrid construction: Robot swarms create plant architecture

Traditional building materials as currently used to erect buildings will at some point no longer fulfil their function and will have to be replaced. In contrast, plants constantly gain in size and strength due to their growth and the constantly strengthening tissue, and renew their components on an ongoing basis. The international and interdisciplinary research team of computer scientists, roboticists, zoologists, cell biologists, mechatronics engineers and architects made this fundamental consideration the starting point for their research project in 2015. In October 2018, the group published its latest scientific results: "Autonomously shaping natural climbing plants: a bio-hybrid approach".

Building sustainable living environments
Plants are complex organisms that perceive their environment and react to environmental changes. Gardeners and artisans have long made use of this natural strength of plants by forming hedges and trees into all kinds of shapes. In Meghalaya, India, living plants have already been used to build bridges that can withstand the humid climate much better than steel bridges.
Human-robot-plant communication
The flora robotica project is currently developing bio-hybrid robots that cooperate with plants to control their shaping. They thus enhance the natural ability of plants to make decisions and open up new opportunities for communication between humans and plants so that growth can be shaped. The robots make use of the natural reaction of the plants to their environment by sending light stimuli to them. This in turn guides their growth into shapes and patterns that would otherwise not arise. For example, robot nodes can currently induce climbing plants into growing according to a special pattern along a climbing scaffold around two meters high.

Innovative technology
A large number of sensors are necessary for successful communication between robots and plants. Heiko Hamann, Professor of Service Robotics, explains: "These sensors operate on the basis of available technology, such as simple distance sensors and other optical sensors."  In addition to the application, there were also "biomass sensors based on the distortion of electromagnetic fields or transpiration sensors and sensors that measure the sap flow (xylem sap flow). Some of the symbiotic robots are stationary, while others move slowly to keep up with plant growth. The control mechanisms of the robots, which influence the plants through high intensity LEDs and vibration motors, function quickly, however." Light in different colour aspects is used to specifically promote or block the growth of the plant, while vibration motors can be used to limit growth to certain sub-areas. In previous experiments, the interaction between robots and a large number of different plant species, such as bamboo, beans, bananas and tomatoes, has already been successfully tested.

More about the research project in the film:

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