What's for lunch? Flies! Delicious, if you're the EcoBot II. Among the many issues surrounding the development of increasingly independent robots—fears that they will take over sectors of the job market, fears that they will take us over, fears that we will become increasingly like robots ourselves—is the issue of energy sources for powering robots in an increasingly energy-stressed world. Enter the autonomous robot.
EcoBot is short for ecological robot. Ecological robots are energetically independent—they don't need us to make their dinner. They feed themselves by gathering their energy from environmental waste. (In another robotics project, the use of human waste has been explored as an energy source for robots on combat missions with small army units, who have little else to offer the robots for breakfast!) The only by-product of EcoBot digestion is the very carbon dioxide that would normally be released from the decomposition of the waste they use as energy—if the waste were left to rot. Do you have to feed your EcoBot? Nope. EcoBot's repertoire of behaviors includes a food-source "search-and-obtain." Not only that, but EcoBot lies low—completely inactive, in fact—until it has enough energy for the next task. But getting EcoBot to clean your room or do your homework is years away.
The first phase of development was to get the robot to power itself by using microbial fuel technology—"bug power"—in such a way that the robot would move toward its food in response to a light, a behavior called taxis in which an organism is able to move by itself toward something in response to a stimulus. (This is different from tropism—in which a plant, for instance, grows toward or away from a stimulus such as the sun—in that the plant doesn't have motility, or the ability to move independently, in the way that Ecobot does.)
Now the next phase involves powering the robot from a diet of microorganisms gathered from sludge and fed with dead flies or rotten fruit. A new use for your compost, perhaps, would be powering your EcoBot to do your composting for you—along with more refined tasks, such as space exploration and microsurgery.
For more information on EcoBot II go to:
Roboticus Predatotus, "Actual footage of the test robot at a laboratory in England":
www.ezbitz.com Bristol Robotics Laboratory, "Robots and Autonomy":