We don't think of plants as mobile, autonomous agents that can walk alongside us and act upon their plant-based impulses. But that's exactly what designers from the Interactive Architecture Lab at University College London are envisioning with this cybernetic geodesic sphere that uses enhanced 'plant intelligence' to roll around on its own.
Created by William Victor Camilleri and Danilo Sampaio, the Hortum Machina B is described over at Designboom as a "half-garden, half-machine" that helps integrate living (and mobile) green spaces into our cities. They say:
In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment, ‘Hortum Machina B’ is a speculative cyber-gardener.
The design features a geodesic framework encapsulating twelve interior modules that have been planted with native British plant species. It is powered with a solar photovoltaic panel, and has incorporated water storage. It is propelled by linear actuators, which shift the sphere's centre of gravity, allowing it to roll over the ground. The team leveraged the principles of electro-physiology (the study of of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues) as applied to plants: while they may not have a nervous system to speak of, they can nevertheless be electro-chemically triggered by external stimuli.
The plants in the sphere are interconnected in an "autonomous robotic ecosystem" that can sense and process data from its surroundings, whether a location is suitable for habitation or not -- essentially acting as a "cyber-gardener" attempting to preserve itself and its native plant children it carries within. The designers explain:
Greater London is now inhabited and dominated by non-native plants. As these often tend to be invasive, their communities spread while many of the native plants are becoming increasingly threatened.
The proposal thus sees itself as an extension to a park, a vessel with native plants situated inside a geodesic sphere that travels through unknown land: the urban London. The exoskeleton (geodesic sphere) is driven consequent to electrophysiological data as the plants are imagined to be the intelligence of the structure, with the purpose of re-procreating themselves.
Upon signal receipt of a daylight transition, the augmented plants act by informing the system about the gardens’ needs. The corresponding module then expands out by means of a linear actuator to act as a weight shifter. Consequently, the sphere rolls so that the shaded/sun lit faces of the gardens are interchanged. Alternatively, through a series of sensors that seek out new external conditions, the plants’ architecture searches for new spots of sun, until a potential location is acquired.
The project features a comic that explains it quite well:
Done as part of a larger project exploring geometry, programming, cybernetics and biodiversity, they go on to say that the concept's aim is to revive our gray, urban environments with these living cybernetic seeds, and to secure a more vaunted place for plants within our collective consciousness: "Plants should become part of our society as well as self-reliant, and be given the ability to autonomously interact and walk with us."
It's a tantalizing idea that plants can be robotically enhanced to interact with its environment and empowered to move wherever they feel is optimal for their growth, while adding much-needed green space. More over at Designboom and Interactive Architecture Lab.