In the early 2010s, when Zoobotics — robots inspired by the animal world — started taking off, another type of robotics also began to make its debut. The idea was initially proposed by Barbara Mazzolai, an Italian biologist-turned-engineer who saw the potential of combining how plants grow with robotics, making roboplants.
While the idea of a roboplant might seem boring — after all, plants don’t exactly move quickly — the possibilities here could open a lot of doors, especially when it comes to colonizing other planets. A big part of putting human boots on planets like Mars, for example, is infrastructure, something roboplants could help with.
For astronauts, infrastructure comes down to primary things like shelter, food, and water. Further, because Mars is so far away, the astronauts need a self-sustaining system that they can rely on without having to wait on supplies from Earth. This is where the roboplants can come into play.
Plants might not be exciting movers, but they are exceptional at digging through soil and finding water and the nutrients they need. Some plants, like weeds, can even grow in the barest places. So, what if we combined that ground-moving ability with a robot designed to look for those same important components humans also need?
Not only could it help make the hunt for water on Mars more efficient, but it could lay the infrastructure for NASA’s future missions to Mars, and even plans by people like Elon Musk to one day colonize Mars. This idea of using roboplants on Mars is broken down very well in an excerpt from Dario Floreano and Nicola Nosengo’s book Tales From a Robotic World.
According to Dario Floreano and Nicola Nosengo, roboplants like those envisioned by Barbara Mazzolai, roboplants could not only act as a way to search for water and other nutrients, but they could also help provide important anchors on worlds where gravity isn’t as strong as it is on Earth.
It is an intriguing case study, and one that definitely deserves more attention. As NASA holds simulations to test how living on Mars would work, perhaps these plant-inspired robots could help find ways to rework Mars soil, allowing colonies to one day build greenhouses capable of growing sustainable farming.