Tentacle-like robotic vines exist. We’re not sure if we’re excited or terrified

At least as far back as 1967, when Richard Brautigan published his poem All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, there has been interest in exploring the unlikely meeting place between cutting-edge technology and the natural world. In the latest example of this, engineers from Italy’s Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) have developed what they claim is the world’s first tendril-inspired soft robot that’s able to climb and curl like real plants. The approach could one day be used to create futuristic wearable devices able to morph their shape depending on their situation.

“It is based on the imitation of the natural mechanisms by which plants exploit water transport inside their cells, tissues, and organs to move,” Barbara Mazzolai, director of IIT’s Center for Micro-BioRobotics, told Digital Trends. “The hydraulic principle is called osmosis, and is based on the presence of small particles in the cytosol, the intracellular plant fluid. Plants use this principle to tune their stiffness and achieve macroscopic movements. We have developed a tendril-like soft robot [that is capable] of reaching and anchoring to an external support. The soft robot is made of a flexible PET tube, containing a liquid with electrically charged ions. By using a 1.3-volt battery, these particles are attracted and immobilized on the surface of flexible electrodes at the bottom of the tendril. Their movement cause the movement of the liquid, [and resultantly also that] of the robot.”

tendril robot climbs like real plant winding

The robot tendrils’ movements can be reversed by disconnecting the electric wires from the battery. The research represents the first stage of a new project, called “GrowBot,” funded by the European Commission. It seeks to develop a robot that’s able to grow and adapt to its surrounding environment, including recognizing the surfaces it attaches to.

“Soft robots may permit [robots] to interact safely with objects or living beings,” Mazzolai continued. “Possible applications will range from wearable technologies to the development of flexible robotic arms for exploration.” While she acknowledges that “the challenge of imitating plants’ ability to move has just begun,” this proof-of-concept demo nonetheless represents an exciting step in the process.

A paper describing the robot tendril project, titled “A variable-stiffness tendril-like soft robot based on reversible osmotic actuation,” was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Emerging Tech

Geoengineering is risky and unproven, but soon it might be necessary

Geoengineering is a field dedicated to purposely changing the world's climate using technology. Call it 'playing god' if you must; here's why its proponents believe it absolutely must happen.
Emerging Tech

A battery-free pacemaker harvests and stores energy from heartbeats

Researchers in China and the United States have developed a new battery-free pacemaker which gathers its required electricity from the energy of heartbeats. Here's why that's so exciting.
Gaming

This list of PlayStation 4 exclusives puts its competitors to shame

The PlayStation 4's game library and incredible selection of exclusive games could make anyone with an Xbox One or Nintendo Switch think twice. Here's our list of the latest and greatest PS4 exclusives.
Emerging Tech

NASA is building an inflatable space robot named King Louie

NASA is funding an inflatable robot called King Louie which could travel to the stars in deflated form and then be blown up when and where required. Here is why that's so exciting.
Emerging Tech

Gravitational forces at heart of Milky Way shaped this star cluster like a comet

Hubble has captured the stunning Messier 62 cluster. The cluster is warped, with a long tail which stretches out to form a shape like a comet. It is thought this distortion is due to Messier 62's proximity to the center of the galaxy.
Emerging Tech

The grid of the future will be powered by … giant subterranean bagpipes?

In order to transition to a more renewable-focused energy system, we need to scale up our grid storage capacity --- and our existing methods aren't going to cut it. Could compressed air be the key?
Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.
Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Earth Day, indoor container farming, robot submarines

Today on Digital Trends Live, we discuss how technology intersects with Earth Day, a new Tim Cook biography, indoor container farming, robot spy submarines, A.I. death metal, and more.
Gaming

Google’s Stadia is the future of gaming, and that’s bad news for our planet

Google’s upcoming Stadia cloud gaming service, and its competitors, are ready to change the way gamers play, but in doing so they may kick off a new wave of data center growth – with unfortunate consequences for the environment.
Emerging Tech

Hawaiian botanists’ drone discovers a plant thought to be lost forever

In what may well be a world first, botanists in Hawaii recently used a drone to find a species of plant that scientists believed was extinct. The plant was located on a sheer cliff face nearly 20 years after its last sighting.