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Robotics to help plants thrive in urban environments

Crowded cities aren't exactly optimal environments for plants to thrive. However, a team of EU-funded researchers is using robotics to help plants automatically grow into the unnatural shapes, sizes, and configurations that urban environments demand. As a result, cities could soon benefit from a robust green infrastructure used for everything from food production to climate control.

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By now we’re all well aware that the robots are coming. In fact, robots and robotic systems are already changing how we work and how we drive. Scientists are even developing robotic bees to help pollinate crops. But robotic plants? Now that just seems like something straight out of the latest science fiction blockbuster.

Yet this is exactly what the EU-funded flora robotica project intends to do.

“With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, society is quickly losing contact with nature,” says Heiko Hamann, a professor of service robotics at the University of Lübeck. “But even in ‘unnatural’ urban environments, plants could be used for everything from food production to climate control.”   

For example, if plants were to be grown vertically on an interior wall, they could help control a building’s temperature. Likewise, if plants could grow in small spaces – or even areas that lack substantial sunlight – cities would be able to unlock the full potential of urban agriculture. “Unfortunately, natural plants aren’t programmed to thrive in these kinds of urban environments,” says Hamann. “Which is why we turned to robotics.” 

Merging technology with nature

By merging technology and nature, the flora robotica project is building a hybrid ecosystem where robotics help plants automatically grow into the unnatural shapes, sizes, and configurations that urban environments demand. According to Hamann, the team has successfully identified, engineered, and tested several methods for growing plants on different scales and with different degrees of accuracy – including a single plant that is able to cover an entire wall.   

By embedding sensors and other smart technology between plants, researchers are also learning about a plant’s ability to grow in indoor climates. “With artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can now predict how a plant will behave in a specific environment and, based on this, control its motion and directional growth,” explains Hamann.

This technology has already been commercialised by Cybertronica, one of the project’s industrial partners. Their application lets users detect a plant’s well-being and make necessary adjustments to improve photosynthesis. Hamann notes that in the future, this same technology could be used to orchestrate the motion of a plant’s leaves. “Like window blinds, we would be able to externally control the position of leaves to turn a green wall transparent or opaque,” he adds.

The future is green

According to Hamann, the future is green, and the technologies and methods developed by the flora robotica project represent a significant step towards getting to this future. “The methods developed in this project will give architects and urban planners confidence in adding living plants into their designs,” he says. “Citizens will benefit too, as robotics will automatically water your plants and ensure they get enough sunshine.”  

Although the project itself is now finished, work remains ongoing. The flora robotica team not only continues to develop its technologies, they’re also working to showcase this technology ‘in action’ by building a large-scale outdoor wall. The wall, which will be covered in plants grown via the flora robotica system, can be exhibited at architectural fairs and other events.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Germany
Project participants:
Total cost
€ 3 641 782
EU Contribution
€ 3 641 781
Project duration

See also

More information about project FLORA ROBOTICA

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