It’s not uncommon for robot-building engineers to take inspiration from one of Mother Nature’s designs, but this might be the first time we’ve seen one of her creations, a Venus flytrap plant, used to simplify the creation of an actual robotic component—in this case, a gripper capable of picking up delicate objects.
In a recently published paper in Nature Electronics, a team of researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore detailed how a Dionaea muscipula plant, which is able to trap live insects inside a pair of leaves that can quickly snap shut like a mouth, could potentially be a ready-made alternative to soft actuators.
As tasks like manufacturing electronics have created a demand for robots that can handle delicate components that get smaller and smaller every year, roboticists have turned to developing robots made from inflatable soft bladders filled with air or fluids that can move and open and close without the risk of causing damage to anything they come in contact with. If you’ve seen the animated Disney movie Big Hero 6, the inflatable and unintimidating Baymax is a good example of this approach to robots.
But why reinvent the wheel?
Venus flytraps automatically snap shut when an unsuspecting insect tries to crawl inside and touches a series of delicate hairs that serve as triggers. The researchers discovered that the closing mechanism can not only be triggered by instead applying a small electric current through an applied electrode, but that the mechanism also continues to work for up to a full day after the leaves have been severed from the rest of the Dionaea muscipula plant.
But at this point there’s no reason to lose sleep over the plant cyborgs one day deciding to seek revenge against humanity for all the crimes we’ve committed against nature. The Venus flytrap cyborg has only successfully managed to pick up a small piece of wire a half-millimeter in thickness and catch and secure a 1-gram weight that was slowly lowered into its gaping maw. It’s no Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors—at least yet.