Tel Aviv, EU researchers set sights on robots that creep like ivy

Tel Aviv, EU researchers set sights on robots that creep like ivy

Collapsed buildings, archaeological digs, even Mars are places where a robot that can negotiate difficult terrain by anchoring itself and shooting off tendrils would be useful

Ivy climbing up an old stone wall (AlexZaitsev; iStock by Getty Images)
Ivy climbing up an old stone wall (AlexZaitsev; iStock by Getty Images)

Researchers at Tel Aviv University will join a group of European academics in a four-year, €7 million effort to create a robot — the GrowBot — that can climb like ivy or a vine plant to overcome hurdles.

Departing from tradition, which has seen a great number of robots inspired by the movement of animals, the researchers intend to study climbing plants like ivy and the vine to find out how they move by growing and how much energy they need.

The low-mass and low-volume robots that the consortium hopes to develop will adapt to their surroundings, as do climbing plants, and will be able to negotiate voids and maneuver on uneven surfaces where existing robots would get stuck or fall, the consortium says on its website.

“Robots with wheels or legs that exist today, many of which have been inspired by animals, are able to move across surfaces, but have difficulty dealing with obstacles – such as stairs, rocks, fissures and pits,” said Tel Aviv University’s Yasmin Meroz of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, who will lead the Israeli team in the consortium.

“We are suggesting a completely different approach” — a botanical-based robot, inspired by the movement of climbing plants such as the vine, ivy and clematis, that can negotiate almost any terrain: rocks and buildings, chasms and streams.

Illustrative image of vines in a vineyard (photohomepage; iStock by Getty Images)

“Plants have behavioral characteristics,” Moraz said in a statement released by Tel Aviv University. “Plants react to their environment and make decisions all the time, but unlike animals, plants are stationary, they do things differently.”

For example, she said, the creeping plants the researchers plan to study solve problems of movement by growing in the right direction: they send roots to where water is located; they climb and turn to reach the sunlight; they anchor themselves in crevices and on objects and at the same time remain light-weight and can grow to be 200 meters long.

The researchers hope to thus create new climbing robots, which in the future might be used in buildings and urban design, to embed guide sensors within cities, or for explorations in the archaeological field or in buildings that have collapsed.

“Plants are fascinating living organisms, of which we still know very little,” said Barbara Mazzolai, research director at Pisa, Italy’s IIT-Istituto italiano di Tecnologia, which is coordinating the project that is financed by the European Commission.

The development of technologies that are inspired by the behavior of plants will allow researchers to get a “deeper understanding” of the world of plants, which is “varied and extremely clever” while also developing robots with soft materials, engineering solutions and energy sources that are “innovative and sustainable for our planet,” she said.

The GrowBots developed by the consortium will use innovative technologies, like three-dimensional printing, and will be able to grow while preserving their lightness like a climbing plant, the statement said.

In 2012, Mazzolai coordinated a European project that gave birth to the first plant robot in the world, the Plantoid, able to reproduce the behavior of plant roots.

Tel Aviv University’s Yasmin Meroz, of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences (Naomi Meroz)

Tel Aviv University’s Meroz’s laboratory will be responsible for developing mathematical models that will be integrated into the brain of the GrowBots, enabling them to process the information collected from the environment through sensing systems, and then to formulate correct decisions and optimal growth strategies according to the route and conditions of the field.

“A growing robot will be able to perform tasks in many places that are impassable to humans, vehicles, and robots with legs and wheels. It will pass through narrow cracks, climb rocks and walls, and bridge spaces,” Meroz said. It could enter collapsed buildings, “explore the face of Mars” and archaeological sites, and enter contaminated sites, she said.

The robots could also fit into the smart cities of the future, she said. “Robotic structures that grow on their own can serve as bridges, and may even become buildings that build themselves.”

The researchers include a multidisciplinary team of roboticists, botanists, mathematicians, material scientists and computer scientists from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Israel.

The initiative is part of the Horizon 2020 FET program, which supports technological projects.

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