Robots that grow like plants, CCHT@Ca'Foscari holds its first seminar

The first cross-disciplinary seminar organised by Ca' Foscari and IIT will take place on March 25th, 4 p.m., in Aula Berengo (Ca’ Foscari’s main palace).
This event is the very first initiative of the new Center for Cultural Heritage Technology CCHT@Ca’Foscari, a hub for developing innovative technologies and tools in the field of cultural heritage preservation, with a multidisciplinary approach encompassing AI, machine learning and advanced  3D digitisation techniques.

Barbara Mazzolai, Coordinator of the IIT Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR), will give a lecture on bioinspired robotics, a topic which can count on a rich scientific literature. More recently, the use of soft materials and variable stiffness technologies has represented an emerging way to build new classes of robotic systems that are expected to interact more safely with natural unstructured environments and with humans, with an improved ability of dealing with uncertain and dynamic tasks.

Despite the big achievements in this field, robotic technologies are still insufficient to mimic the capabilities of biological systems when it comes to changing their morphology and adapting their body and functionality during their lifetime. In this perspective, plants are being considered as an interesting model of movement in robotics, as well as distributed perception and control, self-growing and adaptability features.

Plants are still a quite unexplored model in robotics and ICT technologies, as their sessile nature leads to think that they do not move. Instead, they move greatly, purposively, effectively and efficiently, although on a different time scale. To move from one point to another, plants must grow and continuously adapt their body to the external environmental conditions. By imitating them, the goal is to develop low-mass and low-volume robots capable of moving by growing. The biological models are based on plant roots and climbing plants.

The plants’ ability to grow will be translated by additive manufacturing processes inside the robot, which create its body by depositing new materials with multi-functional properties, on the basis of the perceived external stimuli (without a predefined design). Energy efficiency will be intrinsic to such approach, but the team is developing novel bio-hybrid energy harvesting solutions to generate energy by interfacing soft technologies with real plants. Perception and behavior are based on the adaptive strategies that allow plants to explore the environment.

The potential impact on society of plant-like self-creating robots could be huge and wide, e.g., in rescue, medical applications, space, or environmental monitoring. Since the design of these robotic solutions is deeply based on a few selected plant features, a new view of robots for biology can be envisaged, with the goal to give insights on the organisms themselves and open new exciting opportunities both in science and engineering.

Barbara Mazzolai is the Coordinator of the Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR), Senior Researcher Tenured and Principal Investigator of the Bioinspired Soft Robotics research line at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Pontedera. Her research interest represents a merger between biology and engineering, with the design of robotics technologies and systems taking inspiration from Nature - specifically from plants and soft animals - and the advancement of scientific knowledge of biological models.
Coordinator of the FET-Open “Plantoid” project and the “GrowBot” project recently funded by the European Commission under H2020, she is a pioneer in the fields of plant-inspired robotics and growing robots. She is member of the Editorial Board of Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, Soft Robotics, IEEE Transactions on Medical Robotics and Bionics, Biomimetics, Robotics & Automation Letters, and Associated Editor for Frontiers in Bionics and Biomimetics.