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Revolutionary Seed-Robot: 3D-Printed and Biodegradable, Capable of Morphing with Humidity Changes

Scientists from the Bioinspired Soft Robotics (BSR) Lab at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa, Italy, have developed the first 3D-printed seed-robot called I-Seed. The innovative robot is made of biodegradable materials, and it has the ability to move within its environment without requiring batteries or other external sources of energy.

The robot, designed to mimic the seed structure of a South African geranium, the Pelargonium appendiculatum, can change its shape in response to variations in humidity in its surrounding environment. The plant's hygromorphic structure has been replicated in the robot to make it capable of transforming itself and moving around the environment autonomously.

The I-Seed is part of the I-Seed project, coordinated by IIT, whose primary goal is to create innovative robots inspired by plant seeds and able to act as sensors for monitoring soil quality parameters—including the presence of pollutants such as mercury—and air metrics such as CO2 levels, temperature, and humidity. The I-Seed project started in 2021.

By studying the movement and dispersal features of the seed-carrying structures typical of the Gerianaceae plants, the researchers identified the properties needed to create the I-Seed. When the right environmental conditions occur, these seeds detach from the plant and change shape, exploiting the hygroscopic properties of the materials they are composed of, and move independently to explore and penetrate the soil, thus increasing the chance of germination.

The researchers replicated the seed design by using and combining 3D printing and electrospinning techniques. Different materials were tested, such as materials capable of absorbing humidity and expanding like cellulose nanocrystals and polyethylene oxide, coupled with biodegradable and thermoplastic polymers based on Polycaprolactone.

The I-Seed is a biodegradable and energy-autonomous robot that can be used as wireless, battery-free tools for surface soil exploration and monitoring. The robot will be able to collect in-situ data with high spatial and temporal resolution, especially in remote areas where no monitoring data are available.

According to Barbara Mazzolai, Associate Director for Robotics of the IIT and coordinator of the EU-funded project I-Seed, "Our studies started from the observation of nature, with the aim to imitate the strategies of living beings or their structures and replicate them in robotic technologies with low environmental impact in terms of energy and pollution."

The I-Seed project aims to create low-cost instruments that can monitor the well-being of our planet without altering it, using bioinspired approaches. The I-Seed is the first step in developing innovative solutions for environmental monitoring, and it may find applications in various fields, from environmental monitoring to reforestation.