Researchers use new technology to communicate with plants electronically. Scientists were able to open a Venus flytrap's leaves using electrical signals. (Photo from NTU)


Thanks to Singapore's Nanyang Technological University's new development, we may start to see a rise in "robo plants." A team of researchers from NTU connected plants to electrodes capable of detecting the weak electrical pulses naturally emitted from the plants. They believe this technology could be harnessed to help farmers monitor their crops.


Plants emitting weak electrical signals is not new information, but the irregular surface of plants makes it difficult to attach thin-film electronics. NTU researchers tackled this issue by drawing inspiration from electrocardiogram machines (ECG), which can detect heart abnormalities by measuring the electrical activity generated by the organ. The team developed film-like, soft electrodes that fit tightly to the plant's surface without harming them and can detect signals more accurately.


To test the concept, the team attached the 3 mm device to a Venus flytrap with "thermogel," which is liquid but turns into a gel at room temperature. Using a smartphone to emit electronic signals at a specific frequency, they were able to tell the plant to close its leaves in 1.3 seconds. They also attached the plant to a robotic arm and were able to stimulate its leaf to pick up a piece of wire half a millimeter in diameter.


Though the results were promising, there are still challenges the team has to overcome. While they were able to successfully close the Venus flytrap's leaves, they could not reopen them – a process that takes more than 10 hours naturally. To improve the device's communication with plants, the NTU team has joined forces with researchers at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE).


While there's still work to be done, the team still believes the technology could be used to help farmers monitor their crops and help them identify problems, like disease, at an early stage. "By monitoring the plants' electrical signals, we may be able to detect possible distress signals and abnormalities," said Chen Xiaodong, the lead author of a study on the research at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). "Farmers may find out when a disease is in progress, even before full-blown symptoms appear on the crops."


NTU isn't the only research team to study roboplants. In 2016, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned spinach leaves into sensors that can detect explosive materials in groundwater and send email alerts to scientists. As more teams continue studying these high-tech plants, we could see more robot-hybrids on the rise.


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