Robotany: A Cybernetic Plant; Technology Transfer from Military and Civilian Government Agencies

Hicks, Zachary, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia

In Fiscal Year 2020, the United States spent three times more funding on the development of military technologies than on research and development in government scientific organizations. The military experiences barriers to technology transfer that government scientific organizations do not face, so this imbalance in research spending results in reduced public benefit for the sake of military advantage. An analysis of military technology transfer to the public was completed to characterize historical and current government programs attempting to solve the imbalance in R&D investment. The technical project, an autonomous plant robot, serves as a proof-of-concept implementation of biosensing technology. NASA is also currently funding research into biosensors for use in autonomous agriculture systems, which defines the loose coupling of the technical and STS projects. The technical project serves as an example of a government-funded technology that also may produce public benefit once diffused.
The technical report presents the Robotany, an implementation of an autonomous biosensing plant robot that tracks moisture levels, monitors growth, and moves according to the plant’s lighting needs. The Robotany provides the groundwork for future plant-based sensing applications through utilizing the biosensor qualities of the plant to organically measure plant health and changes in the environment. Future biosensing technologies include autonomous agriculture systems, which can be used to increase the efficiency of food production by directly monitoring plant health on a large scale.
The completed prototype uses a camera to identify when to place electrodes or when a plant can be harvested, making the Robotany ideal for growing herbs. Electrodes attached to leaves of the plant monitor the generated bioelectrochemical signals, which act as a “wake-up” for the system, signaling the robot to begin searching for more optimal lighting conditions. The integration of conventional sensors with biosensing produced a successful proof-of-concept implementation of this future technology.
The imbalance between military and civilian government research spending and the classification of defense technologies combine to impede access to technologies that may benefit the public. The objectives of the STS research were to analyze historical technology transfer from the military to the public using Actor-Network Theory and to characterize current government strategies for increasing public benefit from military research spending. Information for the report was gathered from Congressional hearings, government press releases, and published research from internet and database searches.
A case study of the transfer of GPS shows how various actors influence the balance between public benefit from access to a technology and the national security risks posed by the technology’s diffusion. Today, the government encourages dual-use technologies for military and commercial applications, but these programs face challenges including foreign theft of intellectual property and difficulty in identifying projects with true commercial viability. New policy to identify and protect strategic technologies is necessary to reduce barriers to military technology transfer to the public.
The technical project presents an example of a current government-funded technology with the potential for public benefit, which highlights the importance of policy solutions to enable easier public access to military technologies. The publicly-funded research completed by the military can also produce technologies that benefit public safety and productivity, but only if avenues are created to allow safe and effective technology transfer from the military to the public.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Actor-Network Theory, Handoff Model, Military Technology Transfer, Biosensors

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Eleanor Ozer, Jason Ashley, Noelle Law

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