The IndaPlant Project: An Act Of Trans-Species Giving—originally beginning as a collaboration between the myself and the engineer Dr. Qingze Zou—is designed to facilitate the free movement and metabolic function of ordinary houseplants. In this effort, we have have successfully created a floraborg, a term we coined to describe an entity that is part plant and part robot. This work has recently led to the creation of a larger team which now includes the biologist Dr. Simeon Kotchoni and the computer scientist Dr. Ahmed Elgammal. Our group is currently working on the creation of a floraborg biocyber interface. Addressing the super sensory capacities of plants, this interface allows humans to decipher plant-based information on ecosystem health, the effects of climate change and air pollution. In this capacity, the IndaPlant may allow us to model and support environments that are able to sustain humans and plants alike. A video of the current project plant community can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/90457796.
At the project’s inception, I initially intended to mount the plants on light-seeking Brattenberg vehicles. Originally created through a series of thought exercises by the Italian/Australian Cyberneticist Valentino Brattenberg, these simple vehicles utilize a basic schematic for attraction and avoidance. Once the IndaPlant team began considering the possibilities inherent in the creation of a floraborg however, we realized that we could instead wire the vehicle through an Arduino board. This current configuration not only allows for species-specific programming but also supports simple adaptive behavior, in the form of machine learning. The current IndaPlant community consists of three data-sharing, light-sensing, robotic vehicles, each of which can respond to the needs of a potted plant by moving it around in three-dimensional space in search of sunlight and water. The IndaPlant rides on a three-wheeled triangular carriage. An acrylic shell covers the unit’s base and internal components. Inside the unit’s housing, the Arduino microprocessor and three microcontrollers allow the floraborg to be programmed with the specific needs of the species that it supports. This housing provides a plant docking station at its apex and is externally sided with three solar panels, which the robot uses to re-charge its battery pack when the plant suns itself. Six sonar sensors, used for obstacle detection, are externally mounted the base of the unit.
As an interactive art installation, the IndaPlant Project was created to be shown in a public exhibition space. The artwork is currently housed in the Engineering Department at Rutgers, where the floraborgs have become part of the daily routine. When Dr. Zou’s comes to work in the morning he is greeted by the three IndaPlants, which jostle with one another to exit his office in search of sun in the adjacent hallway. When an IndaPlant is thirsty, a moisture sensor sends a signal through the unit’s central processor which may decide that its plant species needs water. If so, the unit will locate a water dispenser in the hallway, via an inferred sensor. If a floraborg is in the immediate vicinity of the watering station, passer-buys are invited to give the plant a drink. IndaPlant Project status updates and current videos can be seen at elizbethdemaray.org.