A robot made with a Venus flytrap can grab fragile objects

Scientists attached electrodes to the leaves of Venus flytraps to force them to snap shut

A robotic grabber made with part of a Venus flytrap caught a moving 1-gram weight (shown) and a delicate, thin wire.

W. Li et al./Nature Electronics 2021

A new robotic grabber is ripped from the plant world. It’s made with a severed piece of a Venus flytrap. The novel device can grasp tiny, delicate objects.

The Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is a carnivorous plant. It preys on small animals, such as insects. Normally, the plant scores a meal when prey touches delicate hairs on one of the plant’s jawlike leaves. That triggers the trap to snap shut. But the researchers designed a method to force hair-trigger leaves to close.

They stuck electrodes to the leaves and applied a small electric voltage. The leaves still worked even when they’d been cut from the plant. They could still shut upon command for up to a day. Materials scientist Wenlong Li and colleagues work at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They described their new grabber January 25 in Nature Electronics.

Scientists controlled a Venus flytrap with electrodes on its leaves. This video shows how researchers used a smartphone to direct it to grasp small objects like a wire and a moving weight.

To make a grabber they could control, Li’s team attached a piece of a flytrap to a robotic arm. They used it to pick up a piece of wire one-half of a millimeter (0.02 inch) in diameter. The flytrap also caught a slowly moving 1-gram (0.04 ounce) weight. The researchers even and used a smartphone app to control the trap.

Typical robot grabbers are stiff and clunky, so they could damage fragile objects. The Venus flytrap grabbers are soft. But there’s a drawback. After the traps close, they take hours to reopen. That means the bot had better make the catch on the first try.

Physics writer Emily Conover studied physics at the University of Chicago. She loves physics for its ability to reveal the secret rules about how stuff works, from tiny atoms to the vast cosmos.

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