Agence France-PresseApril 7, 2021 10:16:14 AM IST
The remote-controlled “roboplants” of Venus and the crops that alert farmers when they are affected by disease could become a reality after scientists developed a high-tech system to communicate with vegetation. Researchers in Singapore connected plants to electrodes capable of monitoring the weak electrical pulses naturally emitted by vegetation. The scientists used the technology to activate a Venus fly trap and close its jaws with the push of a button on a smartphone app. They then attached one of its jaws to a robotic arm and got the contraption to grab a half-millimeter-thick piece of wire and catch a small falling object.
The technology is in its early stages, but researchers believe it could eventually be used to build advanced “plant-based robots” that can pick up a large number of fragile objects that are too delicate for rigid robotic arms.
“These kinds of robots from nature can interact with other artificial robots (to make) hybrid systems,” Chen Xiaodong, lead author of a study on the research at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), told AFP.
There are still challenges to overcome. Scientists can stimulate the flytrap’s jaws to snap shut, but cannot yet reopen them, a process that takes 10 hours or more to happen naturally.
The system can also pick up the signals emitted by plants, increasing the possibility that farmers can detect problems with their crops at an early stage.
“By monitoring the electrical signals from the plants, we can detect potential distress signals and anomalies,” Chen said. “Farmers can discover when a disease is progressing, even before full symptoms appear on crops.”
The researchers believe that such technology could be particularly useful as crops face increasing threats from climate change.
Scientists have long known that plants emit very weak electrical signals, but their uneven, waxy surfaces make it difficult to mount sensors effectively.
NTU researchers developed soft, film-like electrodes that fit tightly to the plant surface and can detect signals more accurately.
They are joined by a “thermogel”, which is liquid at low temperatures but turns into a gel at room temperature. They are the last to conduct research that communicates with plants.
In 2016, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned spinach leaves into sensors that can send an email alert to scientists when they detect explosive materials in groundwater.
The team incorporated carbon nanotubes that emit a signal when plant roots detect nitroaromatics, compounds often found in explosives. The signal is then read by an infrared camera that sends a message to scientists.