Innovation Inspired by Nature : Learning from the Plant Kingdom to Invent Smart Artificial Solutions

Barbara Mazzolai
Barbara Mazzolai
Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy
17:20~18:20, November 20th, 2014

Abstract :

The concept of taking ideas from Nature to improve technology has been pursued by many scientists and engineers. Nature has spent 3,8 billion years on “R&D” projects and organisms have appeared on earth as the result of tough selection processes. Consequently, it seems reasonable that engineers should look at Nature for trying to solve similar problems appearing in technology, concerning materials, structures, and even mechanisms.

Among living organisms, plants represent valuable biological models to illustrate physical principles or to develop mechanical devices and new materials. The role of plants in our ecosystems is well understood. Plants are crucial for our survival and are fundamental in the life cycle and ecosystems. Despite that, plants are often considered to be passive organisms that are unable to move, communicate, and escape from hostile environments. This interpretation is not very different from Aristotle’s classification of plants and animals in his book De Anima. In his classification, plants were located in the middle of the spectrum between living and non-living organisms. Plants were considered to have a very low-level soul, called a vegetative soul, because they lack the ability to move, and thus they did not require senses. In recent years, engineers, material, and computer scientists have grown an increased interest in plants. There are many examples of technological solutions inspired by these living systems. Plants “engineering” principles are opposite to animals. Their functions are intrinsically networked, decentralized, distributed, and robust in a manner apt to be ported into robotics as well. Plants have been discovered to sense, move, act, depending on the environmental factors and stimuli thus generating useful behaviours that can be transformed into useful robots for environmental monitoring, for disaster prevention, for exploration (also planetary) and for body internal analysis (flexible endoscopic tools). An entirely new generation of robotics and ICT hardware and software technologies can be designed, developed and validated basing robotic research on such original cues. New concepts of artefacts inspired from Nature and, in particular, from plant roots, called PLANTOIDS and endowed with distributed sensing, actuation, and intelligence for tasks of environmental exploration and monitoring will be presented.


Research Interests

Her current scientific research is in the fields of biorobotics and biomimetic robotics, focused on studying and understanding mechanisms, sensors, actuation solutions, and locomotion strategies inspired by Nature, especially by plants and soft animals.


Current and Former Positions

  • February 16th, 2011-present : Coordinator, Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR), Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), Italy
  • July 16th, 2012-present : Deputy Director, Supervision and Organization of IIT Centers Network, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia
  • 2009-2011 : Team Leader, Robotics Platform, Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR), Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia
  • 2004-2009 : Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa, Italy


Awards and Honors

  • 2013 : Medal of the Senate of the Italian Republic, October 27, 2013, Rimini, Italy (“for the scientific activities performed in biomimetics and biorobotics”)
  • 2010 : Award Marisa Bellisario, “Germoglio d’Oro”, XXII Edition, June 18, 2010, Rome (“for the creativity and innovative character of the DustBot idea and for its social and environmental impact”)