Picture a world where ordinary houseplants, housed on robotic carriages, freely seek moisture and sunlight. These mobile “faunaborgs” compete with one another for their basic needs, and wirelessly communicate the coordinates of optimal locations to members of their own species. While these scenarios might sound like science fiction, they are very real – and near – possibilities, according to Rutgers University scholars currently working on the IndaPlant Project.
The project team, comprised of art and engineering faculty and students from the Camden and New Brunswick campuses, has designed and successfully tested a robotic carriage featuring light, moisture and object sensors.
“There is something about a potted plant that is so compelling; it is this piece of the natural world that we’re bringing into our homes to care for,” says Elizabeth Demaray, an associate professor of fine arts at Rutgers–Camden, who is leading the project with Qingze Zou, an associate professor of engineering at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “I find it compelling, from a variety of perspectives, to integrate a plant into a robotic system that allows it to move freely.”
According to Demaray, the basic three-wheel robotic carriage, the housing of which is designed in AutoCAD, is programmed with an Arduino board to seek the brightest area of sunlight in a room. The robot employs six different motion sensors to detect obstacles and maneuver around them. It also has three solar panels to recharge a battery pack when the plant suns itself. The robot was tested multiple times for light and object detection before being put in charge of a potted plant. For a full list of Rutgers students who worked on the project, along with their respective roles, please see below.
As the program enters the second year of a two-year production cycle, Demaray and Zou will be working with new students in the fall. One robot is currently up and running; the Rutgers team plans to complete five more.
Using a series of sonar systems, the robots will be programmed to map space and find the optimal locations of sunlight and water in a domestic environment. The next phase of the project will equip each plant with wireless communication, allowing the IndaPlants the capability to share information with one another. Demaray also plans to work with her art students to design carriages that will integrate the plant physically and visually into the robot. “We are hoping to use 3D printers,” she says. “This will allow the sculpture, new media, and animation students to try their hand at creating IndaPlant housings.”
She then plans to put the faunaborgs – a term that she coined – in a museum or empty building where they are allowed to move freely. Watching remotely from webcams, audience members will be able to observe how the IndaPlants respond to one another, and hopefully thrive, she says.
“I love the idea of them being autonomous, and not needing us,” she says of the plants, adding that the possibilities are endless. “If you have a localized area of sunlight, and you’ve got three IndaPlants, what happens? They are all going to want to be in the sun. Or maybe you have two cactuses and a ficus? Will the cactuses win out in the end?”
Demaray notes that the IndaPlant project was partially funded by a NASA grant, due to the project’s applicability to putting life forms on other planets. “Plants are astounding feats of engineering; the fact that they can take sunlight and turn it into chemical energy is just extraordinary,” says Demaray. “There are a number of situations where you would want to use IndaPlants in other frameworks besides Earth.”
The inspiration behind the project dates back to Demaray’s graduate-school days in the late 1990s at the University of California–Berkeley. As a sculptor, she explains, she was used to creating objects that have a metaphorical purpose. However, she wanted to do something that made it easier for other life forms to sustain themselves. “I felt that the natural world really needed help,” she says. “I wanted to figure out how to give a living thing a hand up.”
Demaray planted sculptures with native grasses and tried to get them to grow. When the sculptures didn’t grow as she had planned, she did the next thing that came to mind – she started knitting a sweater for one of the plants. “That was my way of trying to talk about this desire to help nature in some way,” says Demaray, who also maintains a photograph collection of nothing but people holding potted plants.
While teaching sculpture and new media at Rutgers–Camden, Demaray got used to talking to students about the possibilities of integrating robotics and movement into their art. “It then occurred to me that I should put a plant on a robotic system so that it could seek light,” she says.
Initially Demaray wanted to house the plants on Braitenberg vehicles, simple devices featuring a light sensor and four wheels which can move autonomously. However, after consulting with Zou and Rutgers engineering students, they realized that they could program the robotic carriage using an Arduino board. Each robot could then be individually programmed to respond to the specific needs of a particular plant species. With wireless communication modules, each plant can also communicate information.
Suddenly, she says, everything got really interesting. “You don’t know what you are going to get in terms of emergent properties,” she says. “You are allowing specific species to have individual characteristics in a situation where they become mobile. Of particular interest to us is the possibility of creating a self-governing population of data sharers. In this scenario, the environmental data collected by one IndaPlant could be communicated between members of the community and be used for group decision-making purposes.”
Rutgers students who are working on the first phase of the project, along with their respective roles, are as follows: Andrew Crawford Behind: construction of base and housing; Cheng Chang: moisture sensor and programming; Mina Rofail: UV sensor and sonar sensor; Roger Samarakone: design and battery recharging; Matthew Scheuerer: video and art direction; Bansari Shah: engineering team leader, budget, parts ordering, communication, CAD design, mechanical assembly, and UV sensor circuit; Nirvi Shah: CAD design, parts research, UV sensor, and troubleshooting; and Victoria Widener: art direction; Muhammad Zahid: design, programming, wiring, soldering and mounting.
A video short of the first floraborg test run can be seen at vimeo.com/65444659.