Scientists "Talk" to Plants, via Smartphone, to Create an On-Demand Plant-Based Robotic Actuator

Smartphone-based communication system turns Venus flytraps into biological grippers for future robots.

A team of scientists, led by the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), have developed a device for talking to plants using electrical signals — and say they've successfully turned Venus flytraps into robotic grippers.

“Climate change is threatening food security around the world. By monitoring the plants’ electrical signals, we may be able to detect possible distress signals and abnormalities," lead author Processor Chen Xiaodong explains of the project's ultimate goal. "When used for agriculture purpose, farmers may find out when a disease is in progress, even before full‑blown symptoms appear on the crops, such as yellowed leaves. This may provide us the opportunity to act quickly to maximise crop yield for the population."

The communication device is based around a conformable, adhesive electrode constructed of hydrogel. When attached to a Venus flytrap as a test subject, the electrode — inspired by the electrocardiogram used to measure heart health in animals — was able to read electrical signals which gave hints as to the plant's health and stress levels, while also providing a means to "talk" to the plant.

A clever electrode and a smartphone allow researchers to turn Venus flytraps into biological robots. (📹: NTU Singapore)

Although plants may not be the best conversationalists, the researchers found that the communication device did allow for useful control: Upon a signal from the smartphone, the Venus flytrap closed its leaves within 1.3 seconds — and, when fitted as a biological gripper to a robot arm, could be manipulated into picking up a small piece of wire.

Two open-access studies have been published on the work, one in the journal Nature Electronics on the use of the communicator to create an on-demand plant-based actuator and the other in the journal Advanced Materials on the thermogel-based electrode.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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