May 18, 2016 I Brett Tingley

“Sentient” Plants Control Giant Rolling Cyber Garden

A pair of architects from the Bartlett School of Architecture at the University College London recently debuted their new take on unmanned autonomous vehicles. The giant rolling orb, dubbed “Hortum machina B,” contains a collection of twelve native British plants suspended around a core that contains a water supply and solar panels.

Sensors and actuators inside the orb respond to subtle shifts in the plants’ orientation and translate these into movement. As the plants stretch towards light sources or away from environmental dangers, the orb will roll according to the direction in which the plants are moving.

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Exploded view of the Hortum machina B.

The orb’s designers envision a future in which plants inhabit public spaces alongside humans and other autonomous vehicles. According to the team’s website, this “half-plant, half-machine” rolls autonomously according to the electrical output of the plants themselves:

While plants lack a nervous system, they can, much like animals, become electro-chemically stimulated by their surrounding environment. Through the study of plant electro-physiology, we have wired their primitive ‘intelligence’ into the control-loop of an autonomous robotic ecosystem. Half garden, half machine – a new cybernetic lifeform we’ve named Hortum machina, B.

Potential applications of this “speculative urban cyber-gardener” could see the Hortum machina B released in areas where agriculture or other plant life is scarce; in these situations, the plant-driven orb could act as a kind of high-tech dowsing rod to determine where plant life might flourish best. The team has published a record of their design and experimentation process on the school’s website.

The Hortum machina B comes on the heels of other plant-computer interfaces currently being tested such as turning plants into musical instruments or using plants as multitouch interfaces for computers. Plants are becoming an increasingly attractive test subject for biotech hackers of all kinds, as they grow quickly and do not have the rigorous testing restrictions that animals do.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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