This sun-chasing robot looks after the plant on its head

Back in school I remember learning that plants are “heliotropic,” meaning they grow towards the light. I always found this oddly touching; as if those green tendrils stretching out to the sun proved the plant itself was yearning to live. And why not? That is why they do it after all.

But what if plants could do more than stretch? What if they could move like animals, independently of their roots? Evolution hasn’t got there yet, but it turns out humans can help. Chinese roboticist and entrepreneur Sun Tianqi has made it happen: modding a six-legged toy robot made by his company Vincross to carry a potted plant on its back.

The resulting plant-robot hybrid looks like a leafy crab or a robot Bulbasaur. It moves towards the sunshine when needed, and retreats the shade when it’s had enough. It’ll “play” with a human if you tap its carapace, and can even make its wants known; performing a little stompy dance when it needs water. (It’s not clear from Tianqi’s post how the plant actually monitors its environment, but it wouldn’t be too hard to integrate these functions with some basic light, shade, and moisture sensors. We’ve emailed for more details.)

 Credit: Tianqi Sun
The robo-plant hybrid can move into the sun when it needs to.
 Credit: Tianqi Sun
It can retreat into the shade.
 Credit: Tianqi Sun
It can even “play” with humans (sort of).
 Credit: Tianqi Sun
And it does a little stomping dance when it needs watering.

Tianqi described the project in a forum post last year (which we spotted via The Outline), saying it was a remake of an earlier installation he made of a walking succulent plant named “Sharing Human Technology with Plants.”

As Tianqi writes, plants are usually “eternally, inexplicably passive.” You can cut them, burn them, and pull them out of the Earth, and they do nothing. “They have the fewest degrees of freedom among all the creatures in,” notes Tianqi. But, he says, in the same way that humans have augmented our own ability to move with bikes, and trains, and planes, technology can give plants new freedom.

“With a robotic rover base, plants can experience mobility and interaction,” he writes. “I do hope that this project can bring some inspiration to the relationship between technology and natural default settings.”

It’s a beautiful little mod, and one that raises all sorts of imaginative possibilities. Having mobile plants would be perfect for people (like myself) who have homes full of succulents, but need to move them about so they don’t get burned during heatwaves. But why not dream bigger? Imagine robot planters the size of small bears, lumbering slowly around gardens and parks, looking for a place to sun themselves. It would certainly make us think of plants in a completely new way, and might even make gardening a bit easier.