Branching Out: Rutgers IndaPlant Project Allows Plants to Move Freely on Robotic Carriages

By Tom McLaughlin

Picture a world where ordinary houseplants, housed on robotic carriages, freely seek moisture and sunlight. These mobile “faunaborgs” compete with one another for their basic needs, and wirelessly communicate the coordinates of optimal locations to members of their own species. While these scenarios might sound like science fiction, they are very real – and near – possibilities, according to Rutgers University scholars currently working on the IndaPlant Project.

The project team, comprised of art and engineering faculty and students from the Camden and New Brunswick campuses, has designed and successfully tested a robotic carriage featuring light, moisture and object sensors.

“There is something about a potted plant that is so compelling; it is this piece of the natural world that we’re bringing into our homes to care for,” says Elizabeth Demaray, an associate professor of fine arts at Rutgers–Camden, who is leading the project with Qingze Zou, an associate professor of engineering at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “I find it compelling, from a variety of perspectives, to integrate a plant into a robotic system that allows it to move freely.”

According to Demaray, the basic three-wheel robotic carriage, the housing of which is designed in AutoCAD, is programmed with an Arduino board to seek the brightest area of sunlight in a room. The robot employs six different motion sensors to detect obstacles and maneuver around them. It also has three solar panels to recharge a battery pack when the plant suns itself. The robot was tested multiple times for light and object detection before being put in charge of a potted plant

Rutgers students who are working on the first phase of the project, along with their respective roles, are as follows: Andrew Crawford Behind: construction of base and housing; Cheng Chang: moisture sensor and programming; Mina Rofail: UV sensor and sonar sensor; Roger Samarakone: design and battery recharging; Matthew Scheuerer: video and art direction; Bansari Shah: engineering team leader, budget, parts ordering, communication, CAD design, mechanical assembly, and UV sensor circuit; Nirvi Shah: CAD design, parts research, UV sensor, and troubleshooting; and Victoria Widener: art direction; Muhammad Zahid: design, programming, wiring, soldering and mounting.

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