As miscellaneous as the Plant Kingdom is, correspondingly diverse are the opportunities for taking inspiration from plants for innovations in science and engineering. Especially in robotics, properties like growth, adaptation to environments, ingenious materials, sustainability, and energy-effectiveness of plants provide an extremely rich source of inspiration to develop new technologies—and many of them are still in the beginning of being discovered. In the last decade, researchers have begun to reproduce complex plant functions leading to functionality that goes far beyond conventional robotics and this includes sustainability, resource saving, and eco-friendliness. This perspective drawn by specialists in different related disciplines provides a snapshot from the last decade of research in the field and draws conclusions on the current challenges, unanswered questions on plant functions, plant-inspired robots, bioinspired materials, and plant-hybrid systems looking ahead to the future of these research fields.
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In both biological and engineered systems, functioning at peak power output for prolonged periods of time requires thermoregulation. Here, we report a soft hydrogel-based actuator that can maintain stable body temperatures via autonomic perspiration. Using multimaterial stereolithography, we three-dimensionally print finger-like fluidic elastomer actuators having a poly- N -isopropylacrylamide (PNIPAm) body capped with a microporous (~200 micrometers) polyacrylamide (PAAm) dorsal layer. The chemomechanical response of these hydrogel materials is such that, at low temperatures (<30°C), the pores are sufficiently closed to allow for pressurization and actuation, whereas at elevated temperatures (>30°C), the pores dilate to enable localized perspiration in the hydraulic actuator. Such sweating actuators exhibit a 600% enhancement in cooling rate (i.e., 39.1°C minute −1 ) over similar non-sweating devices. Combining multiple finger actuators into a single device yields soft robotic grippers capable of both mechanically and thermally manipulating various heated objects. The measured thermoregulatory performance of these sweating actuators (~107 watts kilogram −1 ) greatly exceeds the evaporative cooling capacity found in the best animal systems (~35 watts kilogram −1 ) at the cost of a temporary decrease in actuation efficiency.