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flora robotica Report Summary

Project ID: 640959
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.2.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - flora robotica (Flora Robotica: Societies of Symbiotic Robot-Plant Bio-Hybrids as Social Architectural Artifacts)

Reporting period: 2015-04-01 to 2016-09-30

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Within the EU-funded project “flora robotica” two essentials for our future life on earth are being merged: technology and nature. Following a simple yet radically new idea, our international team of researchers is envisioning and constructing a bio-hybrid society of robots and natural plants. This bio-hybrid society will be able to reach human-collaborative goals by communicating, working, and growing together. flora robotica takes the first steps toward intelligent plants that can adaptively and sustainably grow our built environment - from urban furniture, to public spaces, to buildings, to entire cities.

Rather than exploit robot-plant interactions for automatic greenhouses, pest control, or monitoring, we aim to let the robots permanently influence the plants and make them grow in innovative ways. For example, by using robots to steer growth and motion in plants, the bio-hybrid will be able to achieve desired shapes. These “intelligent plants” will help us to establish more sustainable practices in the making of our built environment - growing living walls and furniture, even houses, and new “social gardens” that foster city life within increasingly dense urban conditions. flora robotica sets out the future for current trends such as urban and vertical gardening and the concept of green buildings and infrastructure. Additionally, flora robotica will help people to better understand their plants, which is essential today because our society still runs predominantly on plants – a fact that is easily overlooked. This improved communication between humans and plants is a side effect that allows both sides to benefit.

This project's objective is to develop and to investigate closely linked symbiotic relationships between robots and natural plants and to explore the potentials of a plant-robot society able to produce architectural artifacts and living spaces. We will create a society of robot-plant bio-hybrids functioning as an embodied, self-organizing, and distributed cognitive system. The system grows and develops over long periods of time in interactions with humans resulting in the creation of meaningful architectural structures. The robotic assemblies (‘artificial plants’) support and control the biological plants through appropriate scaffolding, watering, and stimuli that exploit the plants’ different tropisms (phototropism, gravitropism, thigmotropism). The natural plant, in turn, supports and controls the robotic plant by guiding it through growth (e.g., towards the light) and support the weight of the robot in later growth phases. The artificial plants are built from small heterogeneous sensing and actuation modules connected using lightweight construction elements. Each robotic plant connects wirelessly to the Internet. In contrast to top-down control, we explore a developmental plasticity of bio-hybrid systems, where robots and plans grow together from sprout to adult stage and form a closely co-dependent and self-organized system. The robot-plant organisms live in a human-inhabited environment and through interaction with humans grow into architectural structures (e.g., walls, roofs, benches) providing functionality such as shade, air quality control, and stress relief. Humans, plants, and robots form an Internet-connected social garden where desired structures and behavior patterns emerge based on both local interactions and global interaction with parts of the garden growing at other locations. Hence, the social garden is a cultural system that shows long-term learning and adaptation where all past actions and interactions between the natural and artificial plants are represented in the embodiment of the garden.

Agriculture and crop production are of high strategic importance for the EU (agricultural production of the EU: about 350bn EUR, crop production of the EU: about 200bn EUR, as of 2012, Our project will progress modern methods of farming and gardening and trigger innovations on a paradigm-shifting scale. A highly integrated bio-hybrid system allows for novel methods of pest control, for example, based on mechanical treatment that cannot possibly be cost-efficient today. A long-term effect is the development of novel methods to maximize especially crop and lumber productivity by optimizing pest control, fertilization rate, water application, and generation of optimized plant communities. This will reduce production costs and increase production quantity/ quality. Our project will progress modern methods of farming and gardening and trigger innovations on a paradigm-shifting scale. The proposed methods allow the human society to experience for the first time the interaction of plants, humans, and their environment directly. This will influence not only our understanding of botany but of the whole ecosphere and it will help to reflect on our actions of land reclamation and industrial food production.

Objective 1 - Agency in mixed societies: Understanding synergistic biological/technical systems. We aim to create and investigate a hybrid system consisting of plants, bio-mimetic robots, and human beings that form synergistic relationships during a long-term developmental growth process. The plants and robots form a hybrid system and cooperate by sharing perceptions and by mutually providing scaffolding to each other depending on the respective growth stages. The plants and robots operate on different lifetime-scales and develop into beings taking different roles during a long-term process (robots provide scaffolding for seedlings, grown-up plants provide scaffolding for robots). Human beings interact with both plants and robots and trigger desired growth/morphological/functional patterns consciously or unconsciously. The plant-robot-man system forms a cultural milieu that shows long-term learning and adaptation. The system’s behavioral history is embodied as a physical structure that reflects its memory, the environmental features, and continues to influence future behaviors of plants, robots, and humans.

Objective 2 - Smart artifacts: Smart architectural infrastructure as a cognitive being. The plant-robot system flora robotica is applied as an autonomous self-organizing, interactive developmental and cognitive system to create adapting architectural artifacts (e.g., walls, benches, roofs) of various uses (e.g., sound-insulating, shading, aesthetics). An adaptive growth process is created by guiding and exploiting different tropisms of the plants (e.g., phototropism, gravitropism, thigmotropism) along and against them. The perceptions of plants and robots are leveraged to adapt appropriately to interactions and behavioral patterns of human beings that are co-inhabitants of the same green infrastructure (e.g., offices, gardens, urban setting).

Objective 3 - Structures as memory: Self-organized control with embodied memory. The plant-robot system flora robotica forms a bio-hybrid ecology that we investigate in terms of developmental plasticity and long-term controllability. We apply decentralized/bio-inspired control, methods from swarm intelligence and from evolutionary robotics to implement a self-organizing, resilient adaptive system. Multiple plants and multiple robots cooperate and interact, they share acquired information about their environment and themselves, and impose an interplay of various stimuli on each other (tropism, complex growth patterns, etc.), hence, forming a developmental system. At all times the structure formed by flora robotica is the sum of all its past interactions and behavioral actions, hence, its structure is its embodied memory. The flora robotica self-regulates and establishes a homeostatic system by a decentralized control system that is based on physical substances (e.g., water). The decentralized control system is capable of long-term learning so both an embodied and virtual memory influence the current and future system behavior.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

"To establish a communication channel between robots and plants, we combine a variety of different sensors. We apply ready-to-use sensor technology, such as proximity sensing and vision, but we also develop new technology, such as biomass sensors based on electromagnetic fields, transpiration sensors, and sap flow sensors. Our symbiont robots are either stationary or slow-moving to match growth rates of plants. Still, the control mechanisms of the robots are fast, and they are able to influence plants by high-intensity LEDs and vibration motors. We use blue light to attract plants via phototropism, that is, a plant’s innate tendency to grow towards visible light. Alternatively, we use far-red light (between the spectrums of visible red light and infrared light) to propel plants in the opposite direction. Similarly, we use vibration motors to limit growth in a desired area. In our experiments we have successfully tested the interplay of our robots with a variety of plant species, including bamboo, bean, banana, ficus, tomato, and cress.

We have developed highly specialized robotic devices with sensors and actuators that allow us to mix them with natural plants and to interact with natural plants. We have developed specific sensors, such as electrophysiology sensors and optical sensors, to interact with plants.

We have completed initial experiments to develop adaptive robot controllers by methods of machine learning. The robots observe the plant growth process, learn a model of it over time, and learn to steer the plant growth towards desired, externally defined goals. We have investigated the influence of different stimuli to plants, such as visible and IR light, shadow, and vibrations. In initial experiments we have made use of "smart" controllers that leverage the plant’s phototropism. We have developed the Vascular Morphogenesis Controller (VMC) that allows to model self-organized growth. A key feature is its ability to interact with grown parts (embodied memory) that help the system to grow appropriate structures and shapes. We have investigated growth processes of plants as memory of past stimuli emitted by robots that move through the plant's environment. The plant shape results from the behavior of the robots integrated over time.

We have developed passive and active braided structures that serve as scaffold during the long-term developmental process. The braided scaffolds allow plants to grow through them, into them, along them and hence nicely implement the synergistic concept of this mixed society. We let plants interact with braided scaffolds that offer mechanical stimuli and trigger reactions by the plant, and have embedded electronics into material tests of braided scaffolds. We have investigated self-organized construction of braided scaffolds with mobile robots, in which the organizational structure of the filaments serves as an interpretable embodied memory of the robots' past behaviors.

Simulations of artificial growing structures and the self-organised construction of braided structures have been developed. Representational methods have been developed for high-level architectural objectives in the evolution of low-level controllers, and for multi-objective design spaces with changing architectural objectives. Representation of braided structures using 3D mesh modelling has been investigated. Self-organized construction with continuous braiding material using Thymio robots has been explored. Mechanical properties of simple morphologies of mono-material and multi-material braid has been investigated. Inherent actuation potentials of elongation and bending within structures braided using polymer strips have been investigated, together with preliminary work exploring the embedding of electronics and actuation mechanisms within braids. Integration of plant growth as a tri-axial addition to synthetic bi-axial braids has been explored. Preliminary sketch proposals of an integrated use proposition have been developed."

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Besides the usual engineering objectives of maximizing functionality, performance and robustness, flora robotica incorporates another important design goal: open-ended, adaptive and inherently resource-balancing architectural systems. flora robotica will offer architectural artifacts that combine functionality with sustainable organic growth and symbiotic sharing of functionality between plants and mechatronic technology.

The impact of flora robotica to plant science is due to the creation of new perspectives for plant biology. In flora robotica we focus on the regulation of plant growth in a different way than in foregoing agricultural or gardening practice. Actions of modular robots allow us to experiment with many localized stimulations of plants, which then influence the plant growth. An insight from this kind of plant stimulation is that the emerging interplay between local events and global effects in the organism’s development are of more importance than expected. Also new research perspectives appear in the reciprocal interactions and communication between plants and robots, which require further investigation of mechanisms of plant-plant interactions, plant-animal interactions, and plant-environment interactions.
The design and development of robots that form symbiotic relationships with plants have opened new opportunities in robotics research as the time-scale of plant movement and growth is one or two orders of magnitude slower than what is typically required in robotics application. The implication of this is that that our robots also move slowly and hence their energy consumption is lowered significantly. This reduced energy consumption makes it feasible and even practical for the the robots to harvest all the energy they need from the environment (e.g., through solar panels). Hence, it is within our reach to develop fully (energy-)autonomous robots functioning for long periods of time. The slow movement also shifts the balance between movement and computation. In robotics, often real-time reaction is of high importance leading to the use of relatively simple algorithms running on state-of-the-art hardware. However, in flora robotica we may stretch computation over longer periods of time and hence rely on much less powerful hardware or alternatively we can use the time to process massive amount of data and plan the potential next move. The impact is a new awareness of “SlowBots” in the robotics community.

The plant-interaction mechanisms and the plant sensors, so-called phyto-sensors, that are investigated in flora robotica, have a considerable impact as they can be used in two ways. On the one hand, using them as standard sensors they give us knowledge about plant parameters. On the other hand, we can use the plant as a sensor for different external stimuli by using the phyto-sensors as interface to receive plant responses. We expect the emergence of a novel class of approaches to plant-treatment. In developing phyto-hybrid design, flora robotica representational methods have impacted the architectural community with a novel approach to the design and growth of artifacts involving self-organization by guaranteeing key attributes rather than specifying exhaustive descriptions of fine-scale details.

The progress of flora robotica during this first reporting period clearly indicates that the anticipated impact on future robotics, the Internet of things, architecture, and wearable devices can occur. The current development is focused on relatively small, networked robotic devices that are stationary, connected via WiFi, interactive, and in close vicinity of human beings. During the next period of the project the impact on both the robotics and architecture community will significantly increase because our prototypes are ready and publications are in preparation.

The project will produce novel growing artifacts, produce mechatronic systems that do not exist on the market of today, and introduce plants as sensors and actuators in new ways. The project ultimately aims to merge humans, machines and plants into a symbiotic ecosystem that is novel, fascinating, functional, and aesthetically charged.

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