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Science

Watch a plant-inspired robot grow towards light like a vine



A robot that can grow around trees or rocks like a vine could be used to make buildings or measure pollution in hard-to-reach natural environments.

Vine-like robots aren’t new, but they are often designed to rely on just a single sense to grow upwards, such as heat or light, which means they don’t work as well in some settings as others.

Emanuela Del Dottore at the Italian Institute of Technology and her colleagues have developed a new version, called FiloBot, that can use light, shade or gravity as a guide. It grows by coiling a plastic filament into a cylindrical shape, adding new layers to its body just behind the head that contains the sensors.

“Our robot has an embedded microcontroller that can process multiple stimuli and direct the growth at a precise location, the tip, ensuring the body structure is preserved,” she says.

This fine control of the tip’s direction means the robot can easily navigate unfamiliar terrain, says Dottore, by wrapping itself around trees or using the shaded parts of leaves as signposts.

FiloBot grows at around 7 millimetres per minute. While slower than many conventional robots, this gentle progress could mean it doesn’t disrupt sensitive natural environments, she says.

The team doesn’t have an exact use for the robot at present, but hopes it could be deployed to collect data in places that are hard for humans to reach, like treetops.

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