Idaho Botanical Garden hosted the Plantoids Robotics Workshop
In an unusual pairing of robotics and horticulture, the Idaho Botanical Garden hosted the Plantoids Robotics Workshop. Plantoids are simple robot creatures that allow a plant to move, explore, look for food, and even ask for a drink of water. These plant cyborgs help us to better understand the relationship that technology has with nature.
The Plantoids Robotic Workshop took place in the spring of 2017, and was made possible by a grant from the Idaho STEM Action Center. Dave Ultis of Citizen Scientific created the workshop and agreed to partner with the Garden. He was inspired to develop plantoids because “the idea of a carnivorous, cybernetic plant experiment just seemed like a really fun concept that had a lot of great practical outcomes in terms of the hardware platform and new concepts for robotics. I saw how some really intriguing sciences are performed with plant signaling and I wanted to make my robots perform a series of experiments that start simply and work through building more complex systems a bit at a time.”
The plantoid chassis are laser cut plastic components connected by zip ties. Participants had to master “Zip Tie Fu.” Dave shares that zip ties are the perfect connector system: “both a permanent and temporary solution to anything, being able to become an instant fix while being able to be taken out of service quickly without making a mess.” With little more than a screwdriver and wire cutters, the robots took shape. Workshop participants constructed the plantoid chassis, added a battery pack and sensors, and then integrated the butterwort plant host. This was the first robot and terrarium for several participants. Dave said, “The camp was incredibly fun because we were doing a new approach. We were blazing a trail for robotics in the Garden.”
Workshop participants used a basic kit from Citizen Scientific Workshop (the Medulla Oblong Bota Arduino Nano Breakout Kit) in the creation of their plantoids.
Sensors connected to the kit allow each plantoid to react to specific stimuli. The robot monitors temperature, light, and moisture, and is programmed to seek out optimum living conditions, moving along on treads. Participants programmed their plantoids, setting variables for optimum living conditions.
This first plantoids workshop resulted in robots buzzing around the classroom at the Garden! Several builders replaced the treads with wheels and experimented with the sensor variables. Dave shared that he was encouraged by how quickly the builders “became comfortable with solving problems and beginning to have their own ideas on how to optimize and tune their robots. “Everyone was super enthusiastic. It had an engaged community feel to it.”
Dave believes that such projects can engage a wide range of people, allowing “everyone to participate in the sciences starting at a beginner level.” In his Kickstarter campaign for Citizen Scientific, Dave also shares some practical wisdom, pointing out that “plantoids are living beings, which meansthey can …meet an unfortunate end. In fact, they are guaranteed to expire at some time, just like all things. It may not happen for weeks, months, or years, it could very well happen to your plantoid tomorrow when your little brother launches it down the stairs. The key is science and through all experiments in science, something can be learned.”
You may soon see plantoids at gardens around the United States. Citizen Scientific conducted a Kickstarter campaign that featured an “Adopt a Garden: Plantoid Workshop” pledge level. As part of its recent Kickstarter campaign, Citizen Scientific has pledged to host plantoid workshops in public gardens located near project donors. These workshops are planned for 2018, though locations have not yet been announced.
After shipping the initial batch of plantoid kits from the recent Kickstarter campaign, Dave plans to release an ecosystem for Plantoids with new lessons and types of robots, as well as an app that integrates the Plantoid environment with augmented effects driven by the data it collects.
Member Relations Coordinator, Idaho Botanical Garden