Active fluorescence system on drone supports new intelligent biodegradable soft robots

Published on
March 15, 2021

How important is technology to understand climate change and protect the environment? The I-Seed project will combine bioinspired soft robotics, material science and artificial intelligence to develop new innovative robots mimicking plant seeds behavior and able to monitor soil and climate parameters, like the presence of pollutants, humidity, CO2 levels, temperature and quality of waters. These innovative “intelligent seeds”, named I-Seed robots, will be biodegradable, thus respecting the environment.

Since January 2021, the I-Seed project has kicked off. The project has been funded with a total grant of 4-million euros by the European Union in the framework of FET Proactive Environmental Intelligence 2020 call and it will be coordinated by Barbara Mazzolai, director of the Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR) of IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology). The project will last 4 years and 5 European partners are involved coming from Italy, Germany, Netherlands and Cyprus.

The Laboratory of Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing of Wageningen University (WU) is one of the partners in the project. Lammert Kooistra of WU states: “The objective is really challenging and we will contribute with the development of an active fluorescence system on a drone which will locate the biodegradable sensors in the field. As a next step, the fluorescence signal will be used to read out the measurement values of the sensors.”

As Leonardo da Vinci did with his “aerial screw”, researchers will take inspiration from plant seeds which use flying dispersal mechanism and burrowing strategies to penetrate into the soil, such as Samara seeds and Erodium cicutarium seeds, respectively. Plants use seeds dispersal abilities in order to survive and replicate; this aspect is crucial for plant ecology and for securing the plant wellbeing of the future generations. I-Seed project, therefore, will focus on the study of plant seeds morphology, their dispersion and also on the study of multi-functional biodegradable materials. The main goal is to obtain two types of self-deployable and biodegradable soft miniaturized robots with different features: I-SEED ERO and I-SEED SAM.

I-Seed ERO will be a soft robot able to penetrate in the soil through a movement made possible by its particular “bottle screw” shape, while I-Seed SAM robot will fly and operate in the soil surface. The procedure of dispersal of the seeds will occur with the help of a drone that will spread them on the ground, such as cultivated fields or prairies; through the use of a specific software, researchers will be able to track their precise position and monitor ground conditions. In order to facilitate the tracking procedure, the intelligent seeds will be fluorescent and drones will use a LIDAR system to detect seeds from long distances. I-Seed robots will permit to reach geographical areas where at the moment is not present any form of environmental monitoring.

“Understanding, monitoring, restoring and preserving the equilibrium of natural ecosystems is necessary to safeguard species biodiversity” comments Barbara Mazzolai, coordinator of the I-Seed project and Associate Director of Robotics at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. “With a strongly multi-disciplinary team, I-Seed aims to develop new and environmentally-responsible technologies inspired by the morphology and dispersion abilities of plant seeds to protect and improve the quality of air, water, and soil, and effectively manage natural resources.