Meet Plantoid, the Robot That Grows Like the Roots of a Plant

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Most robots get their move on in some way or another. Some salsa dance. Others rock and roll. Some hitchhike (seriously).

And now one even glissades underground, like a worm or a plant root. Meet Plantoid, a creepy-crawly cyborg recently pioneered by scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Italy. It’s a sensor-loaded root-like bot that its creators have engineered to actually grow.

No, not to wage an android-apocalypse from the ground up. Rather, to better test soil for certain nutrient and other properties, including temperature, humidity, nitrates, phosphates, potassium and sodium. Hey, someone or something has to analyze dirt. Why not let a spring-loaded bendy automaton that looks like a mechanical snake do all the dirty work?

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Some wider applications for Plantoid could eventually include aiding in the exploration of mines that couldn’t otherwise be accessed by people. Better yet, scientists say, it could one day be adapted for surgery, into a self-growing surgical implement. Talk about far out.

For now, though, Plantoid simply feels its way around dirt in a lab, guided by soft, durable microchip sensors. To see Plantoid in action, check out this video, via euronews:

To ascertain how to get Plantoid to dig into the ground much like a living tuber, the researchers studied real plant roots -- how they move, grow and change, above and under the ground.  

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“Growth in nature occurs by adding material,” Ali Sadeghi, a researcher working on the cyborg told euronews, “so we tried to mimic that by developing a growing system.”

How? By designing the robot to burrow deep into soil, spawning its own body structure along the way from synthetic material that it uses to smoothly penetrate dirt, Sadeghi said.

Plantoid, which curves away from heavy metals and obstacles in its quest for water and nutrients, might slither somewhat like the roots of a living plant (technically it unwinds itself downward), but it doesn’t eat at all like its biological counterparts. There’s zero water involved. Scientists feed the touch- and light-responsive robot artificial filaments to fuel its growth. Pretty cool, right?

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Then there’s the Groundhog. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center have invented a subterranean roving robot capable of plumbing old caves, mines and sewers that are difficult for humans to traverse. The MINI Cooper-sized four-wheeled explorer dwarfs Plantoid in size, but its mission is basically the same: to more efficiently explore hard-to-reach places dark and sticky, to dig in the dirt.

A couple of groundbreaking inventions. Literally.

Related: Take a Look: Researchers Aim to Create Vision-Correcting Displays

Edition: July 2017

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