Considering how frequently plants die due to the lack of appropriate sunlight and nutrition, Source: Elbert Tiao/MIT Media LabSource: Elbert Tiao/MIT Media Labnot to mention neglect, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab have constructed a plant outfitted with electronics, which enable the plant to seek out ideal sunlight conditions autonomously.

The cyborg plant, called Elowan, was developed by team leader Harpeet Sareen in the MIT Media Lab. Understanding that plants have an innate ability to detect light, which is demonstrated in some instances as subtle movement in the direction of the rays (for example, a sunflower will turn its face toward the sun), Sareen was inspired by the natural sensors in plants that seem to respond to humidity and temperature levels as well.

As such, Sareen, hoping to give traditional houseplants more autonomy, placed a plant in a wheeled potted base outfitted with an electric motor and electronics. On the plant's base, researchers placed sensors that detect electrical signals produced by the plant. Those signals are then converted into commands that are accomplished by the motorized wheels. The resulting plant can follow light sources, moving in response to light direction changes.

To demonstrate, the team placed Elowan between two table lamps, turning them on and off. Without prompting, the cyborg plant moved in the direction of the table lamp that had been turned on.

The research was not just designed to improve the mood of plants by giving them such motorized autonomy. Rather, the aim of the research was to harness the processing power of nature, demonstrating that Elowan might be reconfigured to potentially transport solar panels around a home for optimal sunlight exposure. Likewise, office plants might also be fitted with such sensors and controllers, ensuring that humidity levels and temperature are ideal for those sharing office space.

The design is similar to one recently developed by robotics firm Vincross. That device is a spider-like robot plant capable of moving in the direction of a light source, but with a twist. The Vincross robot HEXA can also dance to signal thirst.

To contact the author of this article, email marie.donlon@ieeeglobalspec.com