A robot arm toting a Venus flytrap can grab delicate objects

Researchers can snap the traps shut using electrodes affixed to the plant

Venus flytrap grabbing a weight

In lab experiments, a new robotic grabber made with part of a Venus flytrap grasped a moving 1-gram weight (shown) and a delicate, thin wire.

W. Li et al./Nature Electronics 2021

A new robotic grabber is ripped straight from the plant world. The device, made with a severed piece of a Venus flytrap, can grasp tiny, delicate objects, researchers report January 25 in Nature Electronics.

Normally, the carnivorous Dionaea muscipula scores a meal when unsuspecting prey touches delicate hairs on one of the plant’s jawlike leaves, triggering the trap to snap shut (SN: 10/14/20). But by sticking electrodes to the leaves and applying a small electric voltage, researchers designed a method to force Venus flytraps to close. Even when cut from the plant, the leaves retained the ability to shut upon command for up to a day, say materials scientist Wenlong Li and colleagues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Integrating soft, flexible plant material into robotics could aid in picking up fragile objects that would otherwise be damaged by clunky, rigid graspers, the researchers say. So, Li’s team attached a piece of a flytrap to a robotic arm and used a smartphone app to control the trap. In experiments, the robotic grabber clutched a piece of wire one-half of a millimeter in diameter. And when not strapped to the robotic arm, the dismembered plant also caught a slowly moving 1-gram weight.

One drawback: The traps take hours to reopen, meaning this bot had better make the catch on the first try.

Scientists controlled a Venus flytrap outfitted with electrodes, using a smartphone to direct it to grasp small objects like a wire and a moving weight.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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