Workshop RoboSoft 2021


 RoboSoft 2021  IEEE  IEEE RAS

Half-Day Workshop

Venue: Online Event

12th April 2021

Plant-hybrid machines, sensors, energy systems – an interface for soft robotics?


Fabian Meder

Fabian Meder & Barbara Mazzolai

Center of Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR)
Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT)
Viale Rinaldo Piaggio 34
56025 Pontedera (Pisa), Italy
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Barbara Mazzolai


Free registration!

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Call for short talks open now:

Submit your abstract BY MARCH 19th to the organizers
(This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 200 words, 1 Figure)



In the last years, a new generation of biohybrid devices have begun to develop that interact with living plants and uses plants as part of integrated devices. The often soft devices employ living plants to derive new strategies for sensing, energy conversion, biodegradation, and environmental monitoring. The prototypes range from integrated sensors to energy harvesting systems in which plants are key components. Soft materials or intrinsically adapt gently to the plant tissue, leaves, and other organs without significantly influencing the physiology. Combining plants with artificial components to achieve efficient and useful biohybrid devices, however, is truly still in an early developmental stage. In this workshop, we would like to bring pioneers of the field together and open up a discussion on how soft machines can contribute to plant-hybrid devices and create promising technologies spanning from agricultural and ecosystem monitoring to energy harvesting.


The field of soft technologies and soft robotics has created the potential to provide systems that adapt to living organisms in a way that it does not harm the living being and allowing its full physiological function. Fascinating interfaces for soft robotics are living plants.

Plants are essential for sustaining life on earth, as food source, for air purification, as energy supply, and as source of multifunctional material systems and many more. Living plants can precisely sense, interact, and adapt to their environments and plants mastered their responses by specifically engineering materials of their organs during their lifetime. Such functionality remains often unachieved in artificial systems in particular when based on similar organic materials. Indeed, it could be possible bypass this bottleneck by integrating plants as essential components to access these functionalities of plants in biohybrid devices. On the other hand, it is necessary to monitor plant growth, interrelate environmental effects on flora, and sustainably adapt nutrients and watering to save resources and enable desired crop production in nature reserves, agriculture, and green cities and for nourishing a sustainable ecosystem. Plants are used for soil remediation and detection of contaminants, to sense environmental pollution and to create electrical energy.

Many other applications can be envisioned if we learn how to interface the fascinating properties of plants with new robotic systems that adapt better to plants, that integrate with the organism, and ideally sustain themselves by harvesting energy from their surroundings and the plants. Soft robotics provides a great potential due to the growing expertise of using adaptive materials capable of adapting to the structure of plants. The soft elastomers can be tailored to let light pass for permitting photosynthesis or enable transpiration that reduce physiological impact of systems.

There are fascinating examples in literature from the recent years that pioneer such a development. Nanomaterial-modified plants as novel sensors can for example detect toxic substances, integrating electronic circuits in the plant tissue has been shown based on the vascular system and plants could be used as energy converters to translate wind energy into electricity by an interaction with soft artificial leaves. On the other hand, thin, soft sensors that perfectly adapt to leaves were used to monitor plant behavior and have been developed to measure local parameters that influence plant growth and could communicate with systems that supply nutrients have been shown.

This workshop aims to give an overview on such technologies and research areas and spotlight the interaction points for soft robotics. The audience can expect to get an overview of the perspectives and we will answer questions like, which are the potentials and benefits of plant-hybrid systems, which are the difficulties, which materials are necessary? We invite experts in the field of soft robotics, bioinspired technologies, plant science and, in particular, plant-hybrid devices to achieve a diverse discussion fully dedicated to an interdisciplinary field that is at its beginning but bearing the great opportunity to spot new research topics in which soft robotics can take the lead.


Plan to encourage interaction among participants

The organizers highlight that the workshop is a unique opportunity to interact with expert scientists from different disciplines approaching the new field of plant-hybrid systems. Each presentation is followed by a question & answer session in which participants can address questions to the speakers. Moreover, the workshop closes with an open discussion on how soft robotics can contribute to integrate plants and soft devices and which perspectives are offered. The organizers will particularly motivate undergraduate and PhD students to contribute to the discussion.


List of invited speakers

Fabian Meder/Barbara Mazzolai, IIT, Italy

Thomas Speck, Biological Garden University of Freiburg, Germany

Muhammad M. Hussain, EECS, University of California Berkeley, USA

Juan Pablo Giraldo, University of California, USA

Eleni Stavrinidou, Linköping University, Sweden

Zhigang Wu, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China

Trisha L. Andrew, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA


Schedule (NY timezone):

9:00-9:30 Fabian Meder/Barbara Mazzolai: Prologue to the workshop, plant-inspired soft robotics, and plant-hybrid energy systems

9:30-10:00 Thomas Speck: Plant movements as concept generators for bioinspired motion and actuation in soft machines

10:00-10:30 Trisha L. Andrew: Transforming Live Plants into Sensors and Living Sensing Systems

10:30-11:00 Coffee break

11:00-11:30 Zhigang Wu: Physiology Monitoring and Growth Manipulation for Tender Plants Using Hydroprinted Dynamic Morphing Electronics

11:30-12:00 Juan Pablo Giraldo: Turning plants into environmental sensing technology through nanoscale engineering

12:00-12:30 Short talks

Adaptive biomimetic actuator systems for a compliant foil based artificial Venus flytrap demonstrator combining two biological snap-trap mechanics
Falk Tauber, Philipp Auth, Joscha Teichmann, Thomas Speck

Electrical Plant Physiology Using Bioimpedance Spectroscopy and Analysis
Jae Joon Kim, Trisha L. Andrew

The biomimetic cellular actuator – learning from leaf movements triggered by bulliform cells
Olga Speck, Anja Mader, Max Langer, Jan Knippers

Towards energy harvesting using falling rain drops using living plants as energy converters
Serena Armiento, Fabian Meder, Barbara Mazzolai

12:30-13:30 Lunch break

13:30-14:00 Eleni Stavrinidou: Plant based biohybrid systems

14:00-14:30 Muhammad M. Hussain: AI Enabled UAV for Massive Deployment of Flexible High Performance Electronics for Enhanced Agricultural Productivity

14:30-15:00 Open discussion, workshop conclusions



9:00-9:30 Fabian Meder/Barbara Mazzolai: Prologue to the workshop, plant-inspired soft robotics, and plant-hybrid energy systems

Welcome and introduction to the workshop. We will give an overview on plants’ exciting solutions for soft robotic systems. Taking inspiration from unique plant properties like growth, exceptional adaptation, and intrinsic sensing capabilities and translating them into the field of robotics, provides the opportunity to derive and expand solutions for existing and totally new robotic applications that we translated into the first self-growing and adapting plant-inspired robots. Moreover, we show that plant-hybrid devices consisting of living plants combined with artificial soft electronics components can be used to convert mechanical energy into electricity sufficient to power external commercial electronic devices interfaced with the plant. Therefore,  we make use of a recently revealed plant intrinsic energy conversion mechanism given by the cuticle-cellular tissue bilayer capable to convert mechanical excitation on the leaf surface into electricity based on coupling of contact electrification of the plants outermost surface and electrostatic induction in the cellular tissue, fully enabled by the plant intrinsic structure. By creating artificial leaves and constraining them to natural leaves on whole plants, the overall efficiency increases and wind energy can be converted into electricity. The plant hybrid generators can produce electricity even at low wind speeds and power a sensor circuit and LED light bulbs. Such plant-hybrid systems can be further engineered to provide a potential autonomous and green energy source for sensing applications.

Affiliation: Bioinspired Soft Robotics, Istituto Italiano di Technologia, Viale Rinaldo Piaggio, 34, 56025 Pontedera PI, Italy


9:30-10:00 Thomas Speck: Plant movements as concept generators for bioinspired motion and actuation in soft machines

Thomas SpeckPlant movements and the structures involved differ in many aspects from those in animals. Important differences are the mode of actuation – plants have no muscles – and the structure of connecting regions between elements moving against each other – plants have no localized hinges with gliding parts. This makes plant movements interesting concept generators for kinematics of soft machines as they offer widely unexplored and often surprising solutions for structuring the connecting regions and for the mode of actuation. A general pattern found in most inherently mobile plant organs is elastic deformation, i.e. the distribution of deformation required for movement over a larger region and by this the avoidance of localized stress and strain concentrations. Modes of actuation comprise typically slow hydraulic processes (i.e.,  water displacement processes between cells and tissues) based on the consumption of  metabolic energy, as well as hygroscopically actuated motions driven by changes in environmental humidity independent of metabolic energy. Both processes may be sped up by releasing embodied energy stored in the mobile structures. Presented examples for the transfer to biomimetic soft machines include intertwined searcher stems of lianas for growing soft robots, hygroscopically actuated flaps for building envelopes and pneumatic actuators and grippers for handling assistants.


Thomas Speck1-5, Stefan Conrad1,3, Tom Masselter1,4, Simon Poppinga1,5, Olga Speck1,3,4, Falk Tauber1,3, Marc Thielen1,2

1Plant Biomechanics Group Freiburg @ Botanic Garden of the University of Freiburg, Germany

2GrowBot – Towards a New Generation of Plant-inspired Growing Artefacts & FMF – Freiburg Materials Research Center, Germany

3Cluster of Excellence Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems  (livMatS) @ FIT, Germany

4Freiburg Center for Interactive Materials and Bioinspired Technologies (FIT), Germany

5JONAS – Joint Research Network on Advanced Materials and Systems @ FMF – Freiburg Materials Research Center, Germany


10:00-10:30 Trisha L. Andrew: Transforming Live Plants into Sensors and Living Sensing Systems

Trisha L. AndrewVapor-printed conducting polymer tattoos on the leaves of living plants can be used to perform on-site impedance analysis, which accurately probes the health of actively-growing specimens. Vapor-printed polymer electrodes, unlike their adhesive thin-film counterparts, do not delaminate from microtextured living surfaces as the organism matures and do not observably attenuate the natural growth pattern and self-sustenance of the plants investigated thus far. On-demand, noninvasive bioimpedance spectroscopy performed using reporter plants systematically placed in mid-sized farms and orchards can reliably detect multi-systemic or deep tissue damage caused by common stressors, such as dehydration, UVAexposure and overfertilization throughout the life cycle of a plant. 

Affiliation: Wearable Electronics Lab, Department of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA


11:00-11:30 Zhigang Wu: Physiology Monitoring and Growth Manipulation for Tender Plants Using Hydroprinted Dynamic Morphing Electronics

Zhigang WuEmerging epidermal electronics that can conveniently acquire vital signals of living organisms exhibits high potential for applications on plants. But it is still a significant challenge to interface the fascinating functions of inorganic electronics with plants, because plant organisms are fragile and can change significantly during growth. Using a gentle non-invasive process of hydroprinting liquid alloy circuit, we have developed an intrinsically plant morphing electronics that can adapt to this highly dynamic situation without introducing any external interventions such as heat flow, pressure, acid or base. Functional liquid alloy circuits with morphing ability can be conformably transferred onto the 3D fragile micro-structured surfaces of plants. Due to the excellent compliance, deformability and functionality of liquid alloy, such dynamic morphing electronics function well on the epidermis of fast-growing (up to 2.3 mm/h) plants for various applications including monitoring leaf moisture content and length, and growth manipulating. This study lays the foundation for a new form of morphing electronics for botany or bio-hybrid plant robots, potentially impacting the next generation of precision agriculture and smart hybrid robots.

Affiliation: State Key Laboratory of Digital Manufacturing Equipment and Technology, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan 430074, China


11:30-12:00 Juan Pablo Giraldo: Turning plants into environmental sensing technology through nanoscale engineering

Juan Pablo GiraldoPlants have traditionally been used as sources of oxygen, food, fuel, and materials. Recently, nanomaterials’ distinct optical, electronic, mechanical and chemical properties are enabling the use of plants as novel technologies including environmental sensing, energy harvesting and conversion devices. For example, carbon nanotube-based sensors embedded in leaves can turn plants into groundwater analyte sensors or plant health sentinels that communicate with electronic devices, and nanomaterial-protein complexes have allowed engineering of light emitting plants and the creation of self-repairing materials. Plants have colonized diverse, extreme, and remote ecosystems in which autonomous functioning of electronic devices is challenging. Plant’s self-powered, self-repairing properties and high sensitivity to their surroundings offers a hybrid organic chassis for nanobiotechnology-based monitoring devices. However, a main limitation for engineering plants as technological devices is our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of how nanoparticle properties control their spatial distribution and transformation in plants. Systematic experimental and modelling studies of nanoparticle-leaf interactions based on nanomaterial chemical and physical properties are crucial for identifying targeted approaches that interface nanomaterials more precisely and efficiently with plant cells and organelles. Merging the unique properties of nanoscale materials with plants can lead to platforms that replace environmental sensing devices made of plastic, circuit boards, and require an electrical power grid.

Affiliation: Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, University of California, Riverside, USA


13:30-14:00 Eleni Stavrinidou: Plant based biohybrid systems

Eleni StavrinidouPlants convert solar energy to chemical energy, sequester carbon, sample the environment and synthesize a variety of materials. Augmenting functionalities to plants with smart materials and devices can result to biohybrid systems for energy harvesting, environmental monitoring and in-vivo biofabrication. Recently we demonstrated a conjugated oligomer that was uptaken by the vascular tissue of the plant and in vivo polymerized forming conductors. The thiophene-based molecule polymerized within the living tissue, without external chemical or physical stimuli only due to the physiochemical environment of the plant. We used the biohybrid system for energy storage. Currently we are functionalizing rooted plants forming conductors in parallel with the growth of the plant, with the conjugated polymer integrating into the plant cell wall. Here I will present the underlying mechanism of the polymerization. We show that the polymerization is driven from the defense mechanism of the plant through enzymes that are involved in modulating cell wall density. With in-vitro and in-vivo studies we identify the key components, limiting factors and kinetics of the polymerization reaction. This work paves the way for rational design of materials for plant functionalization and advance biohybrid systems.

Affiliation: Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Department of Science and Technology, Linköping University, 60174, Norrköping, Sweden


14:00-14:30 Muhammad M. Hussain: AI Enabled UAV for Massive Deployment of Flexible High Performance Electronics for Enhanced Agricultural Productivity

Muhammad M. HussainElectronics technology has enabled an era of computation-communication-infotainment. Going forward, by redesigning such high performance electronics can be used for soft-interfacing with biology. Specifically with the emergence of Internet of Everything, where people-process-device-data will be seamlessly connected, we are eager to know how nature works, how we can mimic them, how we can interface them more and more importantly how we can augment the quality of our life?

To address these important questions, inspired by nature, we are redesigning conventional CMOS electronics into physically fully compliant electronics to redefine their purposes. We integrate heterogeneous materials (classical crystalline and novel 1D/2D) and processes (state-of-the-art CMOS technology and emerging processes) through robust manufacturable processes to develop physically flexible, stretchable and reconfigurable standalone biocompatible CMOS electronic system. We are gradually using machine learning to incorporate AI and robotics into these electronic eco systems to make them interactive – without any human interface. An example will be shared: an array of butterfly like sensors to monitor plant growth. They are deployed through AI enabled UAVs without any human intervention.

Affiliation: Electrical Engineeering and Computer Science, University of California Berkeley, USA