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The 'alarming' robotic Venus flytrap

An engineer from the University of Maine creates a mechanized version of everyone's favorite carnivore plant. How does it work?

Robots can already walk our dogs. Why not put them to work catching pesky houseflies, too? University of Maine engineer Mohsen Shahinpoor is trying to do just that, with a mechanical bug killer modeled after the Venus flytrap. How does his predatory plantbot work? Here, three key questions:

How do Venus flytraps catch bugs?
The plants, which derive energy from digested flies and spiders, employ mouth-like leaves covered in tiny hairs. If an insect touches two different hairs within 20 seconds, the trapping motion is triggered. The leaves slam shut like a clam shell and capture the bug in a mere 100 milliseconds. Then it's lunchtime.

And how does this new robotic version work?
Shahinpoor's prototype replaces the ultra-sensitive plant hairs with a special polymer membrane coated in gold electrodes. When a bug lands on one of the device's "leaves," the "tiny voltage it generates triggers a larger power source to apply opposite charges to the leaves, making them attract one another and closing the trap," explains New Scientist.  

Will the future be full of killer, bug-eating robots?
Well, not quite. Shahinpoor's prototype "doesn't eat the bug," says Jack Loftus of Gizmodo. So the robot can't refuel itself — at least not yet. Regardless, a robot that can kill anything — even just a bug — is "alarming," says Rebecca Boyle at Popular Science. This model is "a major step on the path towards robots that can hunt, catch and digest their own meals."

Sources: GizmodoNew Scientist, Popular Science

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