Robots inspired by plant seeds, biodegradable and capable of monitoring the soil and air. It is the new research project I-Seed – funded with a total EU contribution of 4 million euros – which will combine bio-inspired robotics, soft and innovative materials, and artificial intelligence. The new automata they will be autorobots capable of acting as sensors for monitoring health parameters of the soil, such as the presence of pollutants, and of the air, such as levels of CO2, temperature and humidity. These ‘intelligent seeds’, called I-Seed robots, will be biodegradable, thus respecting the environment. The the project will be coordinated by Barbara Mazzolai, of the Iit-Italian Institute of Technology, and will involve 5 European partners from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus. On the Italian front, in addition to the IIT, they are also involved the Institute of BioRobotics of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and the Institute on Air Pollution (Iia) of the Cnr. I-Seed was funded with a total contribution of 4 million euros from the European Union as part of the Fet Proactive Environmental Intelligence 2020 call, aimed at encouraging research projects that outline a European strategy on an environmental intelligence system. In addition to the Italian partners, the consortium, coordinated by the Italian Institute of Technology, includes the Leibniz Institute for New Materials (Germany), the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) and Olyseus Innovations Ltd. (Cyprus).
Just as Leonardo da Vinci did with his “aerial vine”, I-Seed researchers will be inspired by the behavior of plant seeds. “The plants – they explain – in fact use different strategies of seed dispersal, such as the aerial one, through the wind, or through structures that make the seeds capable of digging to penetrate the soil, such as the seeds of Samara and those of Erodium cicutarium, respectively “. These abilities are used by plants to survive and replicate, “and it is a fundamental aspect for plant ecology and to ensure the well-being of future generations,” the scientists note. The I-Seed project will therefore focus on studying the morphology of plant seeds, their dispersal abilities and also on the study of multifunctional biodegradable materials. And the main goal is to obtain two types of soft, miniaturized, self-distributing and biodegradable robots with different characteristics: I-Seed Ero and I-Seed Sam.
I-Seed Ero will be a soft robot capable of penetrating the ground through a movement made possible by its particular ‘corkscrew’ shape, while the I-Seed Sam robot will fly and operate in the air and on the surface of the ground. The seed dispersal procedure will take place through a drone that will spread them on the land of cultivated fields or prairies and – through the use of specific software – the researchers will be able to track their precise position and monitor the conditions of the soil. To facilitate the tracking procedure, the smart seeds will be fluorescent and the drones will use a Lidar system to detect them from a distance. All this, the researchers underline, will make it possible to use I-Seed robots even in geographical areas where there is currently no form of environmental monitoring.
“Understanding, monitoring, restoring and preserving the balance of natural ecosystems it is necessary to safeguard the biodiversity of species “comments Barbara Mazzolai, coordinator of the I-Seed project and deputy director for Iit Robotics.” With a highly multidisciplinary team, our project aims to develop new technologies that are respectful of the environment and from the environment they are inspired, as precisely as the morphology and the ability to disperse the seeds of plants. These new robots will be useful for protecting and improving air and soil quality and effectively managing natural resources “adds the Italian scientist.
Both I-Seed robots will be used to detect environmental parameters through the application of multifunctional materials that act as sensors and actuators at the same time. These innovative semi robotic will degrade thanks to the polymers used for their production, also combining soft and rigid materials for the moving parts (Pla, Plc, Hydrogel). The researchers will then implement the sensor networks through an innovative, low-cost and ecologically responsible structure, since it is made up of biodegradable materials. In Italy, the IIT researchers will be responsible for the design and construction of the two robots I-Seed Ero and I-Seed Sam, starting from the study of the biomechanics of natural seeds and investigating new engineering, design and bio-inspired materials solutions. The group, coordinated by Barbara Mazzolai, has a strong expertise in the development of bio-inspired robotic prototypes. Mazzolai, in fact, was coordinator in 2012 of the European project that gave life to the first robot plant in the world, the Plantoid, capable of reproducing the behavior of roots; and starting from 2019 he coordinates the project, GrowBot, for the development of robots inspired by climbing plants. The team of the BioRobotics Institute of the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, formed by Antonio De Simone and Alessandro Lucantonio, will instead contribute to the development of mathematical models that will be used to define the mobility of the two robots designed within I-Seed. The models will be used to interpret the behavior of vegetable seeds and to optimize the performance of the engineered ones. Furthermore, the CNR-IIA working group, coordinated by Nicola Pirrone, it will study the network of sensors for environmental analysis capable of operating in real scenarios, and will identify the sites where the seed robots will be tested. It will also contribute to the definition of standardization protocols for their operation as well as to the creation of the cloud infrastructure for data sharing and the interoperability of fog / edge computing systems through the use of artificial intelligence models. (by Andreana d’Aquino)