If you’ve ever read The Day of the Triffids or watched Little Shop of Horrors, you already know not to mess with carnivorous plants – in particular, we should probably not be involving robotics too. After all, the only thing more terrifying than giant mutant Triffids, would be giant mutant cyborg Triffids.
Clearly not heeding the warning, scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, have created a device that could be able to communicate with plants, using electrical signals to receive information about the environment and even instruct the plant on how to move. They believe their new creation will lead to a new area of research into plant-based robotics, describing their research in two separate papers in Nature Electronics and Advanced Materials.
Plants being able to provide environmental feedback to us may also have important uses in the continuing battle against climate change.
"Climate change is threatening food security around the world. By monitoring the plants' electrical signals, we may be able to detect possible distress signals and abnormalities," said lead author Professor Chen Xiaodong in a statement. "When used for agriculture purpose, farmers may find out when a disease is in progress, even before full‑blown symptoms appear on the crops, such as yellowed leaves. This may provide us the opportunity to act quickly to maximize crop yield for the population."
Creating a plant-based robot stems from the understanding that plants release electrical signals when they interact with the environment. These signals are plants’ own little way of communicating that they are doing something, but scientists believe that should they be able to understand these signals, they may be able to "communicate" with plants.
First, the researchers must find a way to interface with the plants. Usually, electrical stimulation and sensing is done through electrodes, but these need good contact, such as a shaved chest or a nice bald head. Plants are a bit different — covered in hairs and bumps, plant surfaces are a difficult thing to attach an electrode to.
To overcome this, the researchers developed a special gel-like "morphable" electrode that could attach to the surface and around all the little hairs whilst maintaining a good contact with the plant. Once attached to a Venus flytrap, the electrode successfully relayed signals that the plant was emitting. Taking it one step further, the researchers managed to "talk" back, giving it a command. By pulsing a specific frequency through the electrode, they were able to make the leaves close on demand.
With the proof-of-concept in place, the researchers hope their creation will lead to both active crop monitoring devices and even sensitive robotic arms that cause less damage than the harsh metal ones of today. The research pushes forward the possibility of sustainable robotics, which are making huge strides in recent years. So, maybe they are hoping to save the planet instead of creating Audrey II-esque monsters — still, we can't rule it out.