Back in school I remember learning that plants are “heliotropic,” meaning they grow towards light. I always found this oddly touching; as if those green tendrils stretching out to the sun proved the plant itself was yearning to live. And why not? That is why they do it.
But what if plants could do more than stretch? What if they could move like animals, independently of their roots? Evolution hasn’t got there yet, but it turns out humans can help. Chinese roboticist and entrepreneur Sun Tianqi has made it happen: modding a six-legged toy robot made by his company Vincross to carry a potted plant on its back.
The resulting plant-robot hybrid looks like a leafy crab or a robot Bulbasaur. It moves towards the sunshine when needed, and retreats to shade when it’s had enough. It’ll “play” with a human if you tap its carapace, and can even make its needs known; performing a little stompy dance when it’s out of water. It’s not clear from Tianqi’s post how the plant actually monitors its environment, but it wouldn’t be too hard to integrate these functions with some basic light, shade, and moisture sensors. We’ve emailed for more details.
Tianqi described the project in a forum post last year (which we spotted ), saying it was a remake of an earlier installation he made in 2014 of a walking succulent (a ‘Hakuhou’ echeveria). He called the project “Sharing Human Technology with Plants.”
Tianqi says that he was inspired by seeing a dead sunflower at an exhibition, that was sitting in shadow for some reason. Plants are usually “eternally, inexplicably passive,” he writes. You can cut them, burn them, and pull them out of the eart, and they do nothing. “They have the fewest degrees of freedom among all the creatures in,” he says. But, in the same way that humans have augmented our ability to move with bikes, trains, and planes, technology can give plants new freedom.
“With a robotic rover base, plants can experience mobility and interaction,” writes Tianqi. “I do hope that this project can bring some inspiration to the relationship between technology and natural default settings.”
It’s a beautiful little mod, and one that raises all sorts of imaginative possibilities. Having mobile plants would be perfect for people like myself, with homes full of succulents and other plants, who need to move them about so they don’t get burned. But why not dream bigger? Imagine robot planters the size of small bears, lumbering slowly around gardens and parks, looking for a place to sun themselves. It would certainly make us think of vegetation in a new light, and might even make gardening a bit easier.