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Sunflower robot doesn't need sun

A robotic sunflower developed by Akira Nakayasu of Kyushu University in Japan follows the movements of people instead of the sun.

The Himawari robot sunflower senses hands.
The Himawari robot sunflower senses hands.

Japan loves its baroque, impractical machines, with Honda's zillion-dollar humanoid robot Asimo being the acme example.

Others include the beautiful and haunting robot mannequins designed by Tatsuya Matsui. And let's not forget that 60-foot-tall Gundam robot erected in a Tokyo park.

These machines are more works of art than tools. That's also true of Himawari, a robot sunflower now on display at Robosquare in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan.

Designed by Akira Nakayasu of Kyushu University, the Himawari prototype is a machine plant that imitates heliotropism, the diurnal movement of flowers tracking the sun as it moves across the sky. But the robot follows the motion of people's hands instead.

For something quite impractical, it's a rather sophisticated device. To detect people, an infrared camera in the flower's head captures light emitted by infrared LEDs that is reflected off hands waving nearby. An attached PC, the control unit, processes the data and directs servomotors in the stalk to turn the sunflower. Check it out in the video.

Himawari, which means "sunflower" in Japanese, exhibits a lifelike, if slightly eerie, quality when moving slowly. A group of 48 white LEDs in the head twinkle in response to detected movement. Eighty actuators that use shape memory alloy move other parts of the flower for added effect.

Kinda reminds me of those mind-altering flowers in that Star Trek episode, but I digress.

Why build a robot plant? Nakayasu has apparently been influenced by the charmingly absurd creations of Dutch artist Theo Jansen, whose skeletal kinetic sculptures also seem slightly alive, but his message seems to be communication.

"That movement of the flower stem and the blossoming towards the sun seems to communicate a message," Nakayasu writes. "(The robot's) slow, weak and slender movements interact with human motion, trying to communicate, the same way a sunflower communicates with the morning sun."