Placed by Robohub on the list of the world's 25 most brilliant minds in the field of robotics in 2015, Barbara Mazzolai has spoken about how science can act for nature, about soft robotics and about the creation of the plantoid, the first “robot plant” in the world, at the fifth Land Flag: From Waste to New Materials, the programme of talks at Pitti Uomo dealing with the various relationships and interactions with our planet, organised in the new space at the Lyceum at the Fortezza, dedicated to the sharing of ideas with the public.
Mazzolai, director of the Centre for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR) at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), specialises in bio-inspired robotics, the science that translates the principles of the adaptation of living things to their environment, into machines in the service of man. Bio-inspiration is not a new discipline: even in antiquity man turned to nature in search of new ideas and solutions for complex problems. Leonardo da Vinci himself, with his winged machines, could be considered its father. Bio-inspiration can be found all around us: from burdock-inspired velcro, to the Eiffel Tower inspired by the trabecular structure of the human femur, and the Japanese high-speed trains of the Shinkansen that take their inspiration from the anatomy of a kingfisher's beak.
Inspired by the octopus, Mazzolai and a group of scientists designed the first robot that imitates the movements of this invertebrate; this robot then found a practical use in the medical field by being converted into an endoscope. And so soft robotics was created, a new branch of robotics involving the creation of robots similar to living beings in both material and movement.
Mazzolai takes it further by taking plants as a model, although she initially encountered some prejudice. Like animals, plants are complex beings: they grow for the entire duration of their lifespan, they adapt to and communicate with their surrounding environment and even have sensing capabilities. Together with her team, she began by studying the movements of plant roots to design a first robot that grows with the addition of material via a miniaturised 3D printer, eventually arriving at the plantoid, a robot that looks like a plant: a stem containing electronic material, leaves consisting of new natural materials that react to the humidity of the environment, and various roots that, just like natural ones, grow and have the same tropisms, namely that they search for substances in the ground. Applications for the plantoid range from the field of agriculture, where it is used to monitor the temperature and humidity of the soil, to space, in anchoring systems.
Mazzolai is already thinking about potential future applications of these robots that grow: in archaeology and in rescue, by equipping them with cameras, sensors, and the ability to adapt the body to extreme, cramped conditions. Above all she dreams of infrastructure and structures such as bridges, that are built by growing, and that these robots might have a sort of life cycle, by which they grow, adapt to their environment, perform their function for man, use the energy around them, and eventually disappear thanks to biodegradable or recyclable materials; a technology, therefore, born of nature and ultimately in the service of it.