Robotic Sensing and Stimuli Provision for Guided Plant Growth

Mostafa Wahby, Mary Katherine Heinrich, Daniel Nicolas Hofstadler, Julian Petzold, Igor Kuksin, Payam Zahadat, Thomas Schmickl, Phil Ayres, Heiko Hamann
J. Vis. Exp. 149 (2019), e59835


Robot systems are actively researched for manipulation of natural plants, typically restricted to agricultural automation activities such as harvest, irrigation, and mechanical weed control. Extending this research, we introduce here a novel methodology to manipulate the directional growth of plants via their natural mechanisms for signaling and hormone distribution. An effective methodology of robotic stimuli provision can open up possibilities for new experimentation with later developmental phases in plants, or for new biotechnology applications such as shaping plants for green walls. Interaction with plants presents several robotic challenges, including short-range sensing of small and variable plant organs, and the controlled actuation of plant responses that are impacted by the environment in addition to the provided stimuli. In order to steer plant growth, we develop a group of immobile robots with sensors to detect the proximity of growing tips, and with diodes to provide light stimuli that actuate phototropism. The robots are tested with the climbing common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, in experiments having durations up to five weeks in a controlled environment. With robots sequentially emitting blue light-peak emission at wavelength 465 nm-plant growth is successfully steered through successive binary decisions along mechanical supports to reach target positions. Growth patterns are tested in a setup up to 180 cm in height, with plant stems grown up to roughly 250 cm in cumulative length over a period of approximately seven weeks. The robots coordinate themselves and operate fully autonomously. They detect approaching plant tips by infrared proximity sensors and communicate via radio to switch between blue light stimuli and dormant status, as required. Overall, the obtained results support the effectiveness of combining robot and plant experiment methodologies, for the study of potentially complex interactions between natural and engineered autonomous systems.