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Towards new frontiers for distributed environmental monitoring based on an ecosystem of plant seed-like soft robots

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - I-Seed (Towards new frontiers for distributed environmental monitoring based on an ecosystem of plant seed-like soft robots)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-06-30

Understanding and monitoring natural ecosystems is necessary for an efficient implementation of sustainable strategies to tackle climate and environmental-related challenges. A long-standing challenge for environmental monitoring is the low spatial and temporal resolution of available data for many regions. Additionally, new approaches for the design of sustainable technologies are urgently needed to reduce current problems related to energy costs and e-waste produced.
The EU FET Proactive Environmental Intelligence project “I-Seed” targets towards the development of a radically simplified and environmentally friendly approach for analysing and monitoring topsoil and air. Specifically, I-Seed aims at developing a new generation of self-deployable and biodegradable soft miniaturized robots, inspired by the morphology and dispersion abilities of plant seeds, able to perform a low-cost, environmentally responsible, and in-situ detection.
The natural functional mechanisms of seeds dispersal offer a rich source of robust, highly adaptive, mass and energy efficient mechanisms, which can be selected and implemented for advanced, but simple, technological inventions. I-Seed robots are conceived as unique in their movement abilities because inspired by passive mechanisms and materials of natural seeds, as well as in their environmentally friendly design because made of biodegradable components. Sensing is based on a chemical transduction mechanism in a stimulus-responsive sensor material with fluorescence-based optical readout, which can be read via one or more drones equipped with fluorescent LiDAR technology and a software able to perform a real time georeferencing of data.
The I-Seed robotic ecosystem is envisioned to be used for collecting environmental data in-situ with high spatial and temporal resolution across large remote areas where monitoring data are limited or no available, and thus for extending current environmental sensor frameworks and data analysis systems.
The first year of the project started with the definition of the I-Seed environmental scenarios and field validation strategy, followed by a series of scientific and technical activities for the design and development of the I-Seed platform. Specifically, a focused study of plant seed materials and biomechanics has been carried out in order to define useful specifications for the modelling and the design of the artificial systems in terms of multi-functional materials, their structural properties, and morphological adaptation. We have started parallel activities on mathematical modelling of movements of natural and artificial seeds, on the design and development of the artificial seeds and sensing, on the active laser-induced fluorescence system on the drone, as well as on their geo-referencing software and smart flight controller.
One of the first challenges was to define the methodology to translate the biological principles of some selected plant seeds and their dispersal strategies in the design and fabrication of environmentally responsive seed-like soft robots made of multi-functional biodegradable materials.
With the I-Seed objective to perform measurements in both air above soil and topsoil, two groups of natural seeds have been identified and analysed to extract biological specifications for the artificial systems: (1) self-burying seeds able to passively penetrate into the soil fractures. Crawling and burying occur thanks to the seed awn unit, which has hygroscopic characteristics and responds to variations of external humidity by changing its configuration; (2) flying seeds - which use their morphology and structural features to be carried by the wind and dispersed over great distances. With a review, we have systematically collected, for the first time together, the morphological, structural, biomechanical and aerodynamic information from selected plant seeds relevant to take inspiration for the engineering design of soft robots, and discussed potential future developments in the field across material science, plant biology, robotics and embodied intelligence.
Starting from the identified biological principles, the second challenge focused on building artificial seed-like robots with biodegradable/environmentally-friendly materials able to provide structural support and dynamically respond to several environmental stimuli. For the self-burying seeds, one of the key components of the structure is the seed capsule, which plays a fundamental role in the anchoring of the seeds to the soil surface irregularities, which are then used by the seed to penetrate. For this reason, we have designed and microfabricated a biodegradable seed capsule-like probe by using 3D micromolding approach via two-photon lithography in combination with casting of biodegradable thermoplastic polycaprolactone polymer (PCL).
Motion and dispersion of the seeds can be obtained by using the natural combination of sensing and actuation through material computation, with which is possible to obtain a passive mobility (with no need of any internal energy source), exploiting their morphology, structure and biomechanics/aerodynamics.
For the design, a modelling of the mechanical functions of biological and robotic seeds is useful. The challenge is to formulate new reduced models of fluid-structure-interaction in order to assess and optimize the role of shape and elastic compliance in selecting the flying style and controlling trajectories and flight performance. Models can also be used for resolving the mechanics and energetics of interaction, study the motion of seeds in contact with the soil, and optimize the performance of the robotic seeds.
Sensing in artificial seeds is obtained via transduction-based sensor materials, which challenge to advance in-situ sensing technology based on chemical transduction mechanisms. This goes beyond the current sensor network by using materials that react to environmental parameters, such as temperature or humidity, or to certain chemical analytes by changing optical properties. Reading of the signal is based on optical signaling and fluorescence by LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology. The challenge focuses on the design and development of a multi-wavelength fluorescence LiDAR system capable of detecting several excitations in one observation. This will extend the presented laser-induced fluorescence principle as evaluated for vegetation to other materials being part of the I-Seeds.
LiDAR data post-processing and drone flight controller are necessary to design and implement a “smart” flight controller based on deep learning architecture, with a software able to read and process in real-time the data stream and a desktop software to do post-processing and export.
The collection of environmental data and their analysis target the filling of geographical gaps to improve ongoing monitoring networks in areas where no monitoring infrastructures are available with low investment and management costs. I-Seed scenario challenges to increase the spatial resolution of monitoring points/sites developing a low cost technology allowing to execute continuous field campaigns in contaminated sites/emission regions to cross-check the effectiveness of remediation measures adopted to restore ecosystems quality.

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