Robotic exoskeleton turns everyday houseplants into sun-seeking cyborgs

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As if we needed more evidence that we have more technology than we know what to do with, a collaboration between an artist and an engineer has yielded something both whimsical and potentially useful. It gives houseplants autonomy.

Such ideas have been explored in science fiction before—in Vernor Vinge’s novel A Fire Upon the Deep, one race of aliens consists of trees attached to a wheeled base that affords them short-term memory and consciousness. That’s more or less what artist Elizabeth Demaray and engineer Qingze Zou, both faculty at Rutgers, have created in collaboration with their students.

The IndaPlant project aims to create the world’s first “faunaborg,” a three-wheeled, autonomous robot platform “engineered to support the free movement and metabolic function of ordinary houseplants.” Using a combination of light and moisture sensors, IndaPlant can, cat-like, independently navigate a room, avoiding obstacles while following the sun’s light throughout the day. It also includes a moisture sensor which allows the plant to alert its owner when it needs to be watered. (The action shots in the video above begin at 5:36.)

Previous efforts to connect houseplants to the “Internet of Things” were aimed at monitoring their vital signs, but IndaPlant is the first effort to make plants active participants in their own care. It may be a small step for engineers, but it’s a giant evolutionary leap for plant-kind.