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Are Singapore’s Robot Plants The Future Of Sustainable Agriculture?

by Sai Vardhan

Are Singapore’s Robot Plants The Future Of Sustainable Agriculture?

April 12, 2021

We all belong to the 21st century and as the post internet generation we seldom stop to take stock of all the technological leaps we have taken as a society, which enables us to do these amazing things effortlessly. What if this technology could be paired up with the plant world? Researchers in Singapore have an answer.

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At the start of 2021, they developed a device by using a conformable electrode, gluing it to a plant using a soft and sticky adhesive known as hydro-gel.

Ever wondered of a possibility of communicating with plants to detect the diseases or any other problems faced by them due to bad weather in their environment?  A team of researchers in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have developed a device that could do so.

What is the fundamental hypothesis behind this device?

At the start of 2021, they developed a device by using a conformable electrode, gluing it to a plant using a soft and sticky adhesive known as hydro-gel. Back in 2016, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team turned spinach leaves into sensors that could send an email alert to scientists when they detect explosive materials in groundwater which makes us realize that plant can emit electrical signals to sense and respond accordingly with the environment which scientists believed for a long time. 

These plants cannot produce a massive amount of electrical signals, that is why the team thought an electrode attached to the plant making good contact to the surface would detect the adequate amount of electrical signal produced by the plants, which could be interpreted later, by a device. 

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A team of researchers in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have developed a device that could communicate with plants.

Proof of concept

They chose the world-renowned Venus Flytrap, which is a considerably remarkable carnivorous plant that in a dramatic manner catches its prey when triggered, with its hairy leafy lobes. On the inner surfaces of the lobes are hair-like projections called trichomes that cause the lobes to snap shut when prey comes in contact with them.

Being one amongst the small number of plants capable of very rapid movement, it can snap shut to catch even the fastest of insects; a feat beyond even most people!

This device doesn’t affect the basic functionality of the plant while detecting the electrical signals.

So, they attached the communicating device to the Venus flytrap- to initiate a snap of its jaws and shut at the push of a button on a smartphone app. They then attached one of the jaws to a robotic arm which is very thin in terms of diameter, transmitting electric pulses to the device at a specific frequency and got the contraption to pick up a piece of wire half a millimeter thick, and catch a small falling object.

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

Although, as of now the possible use of this equipment includes monitoring the health of crops to enhance food security and identify any damage or disease beforehand. It is still in the very early stages but with proper advancement, we can achieve to build more plant-based robots even with the countless obstacles and challenges they come with.

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