Biodegradable Soft Robots Mimic Plant Seeds to Monitor Soil and Air Quality
The INM – Leibniz Institute for New Materials in Saarbrücken is a partner in the EU project I-Seed. The goal of the project is to develop intelligent plant seed-inspired soft robots that disperse on and in the soil to monitor soil and climate parameters.
The project is carried out by five European partners and coordinated by the renowned Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT). I-Seed started in January 2021 and receives funding of four million euros from the European Union’s FET Proactive program.
How can modern technology help understand climate change and protect the environment? I-Seed brings together bioinspired soft robotics, materials science and artificial intelligence to develop robots that mimic the behavior of plant seeds. Smart seeds, known as “I-Seed robots,” are designed to monitor soil and climate parameters, such as the presence of pollutants, moisture, CO2 levels, temperature and water quality.
The ability to optimally plant their seeds in the soil is essential for plant survival. As Leonardo da Vinci did with his “aerial screw,” the researchers in the I-Seed project are taking inspiration from special plant seeds that reach their destination by flying or drilling, such as the seeds of maple or Erodium cicutarium seeds. On the one hand, they are investigating the morphology of plant seeds and their dispersal mechanisms. On the other hand, they are researching multifunctional materials for the robots that are biodegradable and do not pollute the environment.
“Understanding, monitoring, restoring and preserving the balance of natural ecosystems is necessary to maintain biodiversity,” explains Barbara Mazzolai, coordinator of the I-Seed project and associate director of robotics at IIT. “With a strong, multidisciplinary team, I-Seed aims to create new and environmentally sustainable technologies based on the capabilities of plant seeds.” The main goal of the project, she said, is to develop two types of biodegradable soft robots with different characteristics: I-SEED ERO and I-SEED SAM.
I-Seed ERO will be shaped like a corkscrew and will penetrate the soil by moving. I-Seed SAM, on the other hand, will be designed to fly and work on the soil surface. I-Seed robots are dispersed with the help of a drone. By using special software, researchers can track the position of the smart seeds. To facilitate the tracking of ERO and SAM, they will also be fluorescent. With the help of a lidar system for optical distance measurement, the drones can then track the seeds over greater distances. I-Seed robots will thus be able to be used in geographic areas where environmental monitoring is not currently available.
The Institute for New Materials is providing fluorescent markers and sensor materials that can be integrated into I-Seed robots and read by drones. For this purpose, INM’s Structure Formation program area, led by Tobias Kraus, combines customized particles and molecules that change their fluorescence properties depending on environmental conditions.
Your contact person:
Prof. Dr. Tobias Kraus
Tel.: ++49 (0)681 9300 389
I-Seed has received a total of four million euros in funding from the European Union under the FET Proactive “Environmental Intelligence” call and will run for four years. It is coordinated by Barbara Mazzolai, director of the Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR) of the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. Also involved are: Leibniz Institute for New Materials (Germany), Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (Italy), Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna (Italy), Wageningen University (Netherlands) and Olyseus Innovations Ltd. (Cyprus).