Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a university in Singapore comes along and creates a half-robot, half-plant Venus flytrap cyborg. That’s what researchers at Nanyang Technological University recently built — and, while it’s unnerving and impressive in equal measure, it could also turn out to be surprisingly useful.
A Venus flytrap is pretty cool in its own right. A rare example of a carnivorous plant that gains part of its nutrients from munching on insects and spiders, the Venus flytrap resembles a set of jaws that close over prey when tiny, tripwire-style stiff hairs on its leaves are triggered. The tasty morsel is trapped inside by the plant’s interlocking teeth, before the Venus flytrap sets about digesting its soon-to-be meal with stomach-style juices.
The cyborg Venus flytrap is that, basically — but augmented with electrodes stuck to the leaves so as to render it controllable via smartphone.
“Plants, for the first time, can now be on-demand operated to do instant tasks,” Xiaodong Chen, President’s Chair Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, told Digital Trends.
Chen noted that the researchers used a frequency-dependent modulation method to stimulate the flytrap with a high level of accuracy and speed. As can be seen from the above video, it works surprisingly well.
But the goal isn’t to create an army of Internet of Things carnivorous robo-plants, like a Little Shop of Horrors revival directed by Jeff Bezos. Instead, it’s a piece of fundamental research that could be used to create more sensitive robo-grippers able to pick up fragile objects that might be harmed by rigid, traditional grippers. In demonstrations, the flytrap was attached to a robot arm and used to hold a piece of wire half a millimeter in diameter.
Chen said that the research could also be used to create thin film patches that may be attached to leaf surfaces to monitor plant stress.
The next phase of the project will involve establishing a way to greatly improve the speed at which the flytrap will reopen after closing.
“The next step is to realize faster reopening of the plant robot,” Chen said. “Though the flytrap closing process can be accurately controlled, it takes hours to reopen. Our next step is to figure out ways to accelerate the reopening process. Furthermore, we would [like to] extend the plant from flytrap to other more common plant species.”
A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Carnivorous Plant Robots And You. (Just kidding: it was Nature Electronics.)
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