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This Cybernetic Lifeform Is Powered by Plant Intelligence

The reEarth project aims to explore how humans and cybernetic architectural lifeforms can live together within an urban environment.
The robotic geodesic sphere seen inching along Hampstead road in London. Image: William Victor Camilleri

Cities like London can often feel like urban jungles with scarce amounts of green spaces.

But researchers from the Interactive Architecture Lab at University College London are exploring a future scenario where "cybernetic lifeforms" that are "half garden and half machine" roam our urban cityscapes, co-existing alongside us.

Hortum machina B is a robotic geodesic sphere covered in plants. The exoskeleton structure contains twelve garden modules, each of which is planted with native British species. The robotic "brain" consists of an array of electrodes that allow it to monitor the physiological responses of the plants to their environment, such as to reactions to stimuli including light, humidity, and temperature. Linear actuators then move the sphere by shifting its centre of gravity.


Hortum machina, B from Interactive Architecture Lab on Vimeo.

In the research group's video, the sphere can be seen hanging out with humans in parks and creeping slowly along roads.

"We as architects feel the need to integrate plants in buildings to the point where people think of them as actual living systems," explained architecture students William Victor Camilleri and Danilo Sampaio in a blog post.

"Therefore, our general theme and approach in this set of projects is that plants should become part of our society as well as self-reliant, and be given the ability to autonomously interact and walk with us," they added.

A drawing of the Hortum machina B. Image: William Victor Camilleri and Danilo Sampaio

The Christmas bauble-like sphere stems from the group's reEarth project and went through several iterations.

While Hortum machina B is just a tentative examination of how architectural forms might become more mobile, the researchers state that in a near future context where driverless cars and autonomous flying vehicles proliferate, "Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber gardener."