'Robo-plants' usher new era of plant to human interaction

Singapore, Singapore: Scientists have built a high-tech device for interacting with vegetation, which may lead to outstanding innovations like remote-controlled Venus flytrap "robo-plants" and crops that warn farmers when they are infected with diseases.

As sci-fish it sounds, Singapore researchers connected plants to electrodes capable of picking up the weak electrical pulses naturally released by vegetation.

The scientists used the technology to cause a Venus flytrap's jaws to snap close at the touch of a button on a smartphone app.

They then attached one of its jaws to a robotic arm and programmed the device to pick up a half-millimeter-thick piece of wire and capture a small falling object.

While the technology is still in its early stages, researchers claim it could one day be used to create advanced "plant-based robots" capable of picking up a variety of fragile items that are too delicate for rigid, robotic arms.

"These kinds of nature robots can be interfaced with other artificial robots (to make) hybrid systems," Chen Xiaodong, the lead author of a study on the research at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), told AFP.

There are still obstacles to tackle though. Scientists may stimulate the flytrap's jaws to close but not reopen them, a process that takes 10 or more hours in nature.

Crop defence

The device can also detect signals produced by plants, increasing the likelihood that farmers will be able to detect crop problems at an early stage.

"By monitoring the plants' electrical signals, we may be able to detect possible distress signals and abnormalities," said Chen.

"Farmers may find out when a disease is in progress, even before full-blown symptoms appear on the crops."

Such technology, according to researchers, may be particularly useful as crops face growing threats from climate change.

Plants have long been known to emit very weak electrical signals, but their uneven and waxy surfaces make it difficult to install sensors effectively.

To combat this difficulty, the NTU researchers created film-like, soft electrodes that can detect signals more accurately because they match closely to the plant's surface.

They are held together by a "thermogel," which is liquid at low temperatures but gels at room temperature.

They are the most recent to perform plant-to-plant communication studies.

In 2016, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed spinach leaves into sensors that can give scientists an email warning when explosive materials are detected in groundwater.

The team embedded carbon nanotubes that emit a signal when plant roots detect nitroaromatics -- compounds often found in explosives. The signal is then read by an infrared camera that sends out a message to the scientists.

With AFP inputs. 

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