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Monday, 17 October 2011

The rise of the energy autonomous robot

The Engineer
Oct 17, 2011

Varied diet: EcoBot-III feeds on the common housefly and partially treated sewage

As a keen gardener with a hatred of slugs, my grandfather would have loved the idea of a robot that captures the pests, digests them and uses the resulting energy to catch more.

Unfortunately, he didn’t quite live to see it. And, in any case, the prototype - made by researchers at Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL) in 2000 - didn’t quite work. Its detector/grabber arm could find and capture the slugs fine, but the micro-combustor and methane fuel cell was never going to generate enough energy to let it work autonomously. Nevertheless, it set them on a path to arguably some of the most interesting work in robotics research today.

Giving a public lecture at the TAROS robotics conference in Sheffield last month, Prof Alan Winfield of BRL asserted that if you ’ask any researcher in the field today what the most pressing challenge is in robotics, most would say it’s energy autonomy’. Winfield went on to say that colleagues of his at BRL were leading the world in this regard. Compelled to verify these claims, The Engineer headed to Bristol.

The ’lab’ is actually more of a hangar, originally intended as a factory before being leased to Bristol University and the University of the West of England for the collaborative BRL. However, it’s perfectly suited to the ethos of the BRL, which is all about building and testing robots from scratch where possible, rather than just designing bespoke software to slot into existing platforms. The upshot is that BRL researchers have to be well versed in engineering, electronics and even biochemistry in the case of Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, who heads the energy autonomy group.

’Until recently, people in the field were more concerned with computational autonomy, so making decisions in a dynamic environment. But unless it takes into account the energy collection, distribution and management on board, then it’s not true autonomy,’ he said. It could be argued that robots such as the Mars rover vehicles have achieved some degree of energy autonomy using photovoltaics and batteries. But, as well as the obvious drawback of not being able to work underground or underwater, they’re actually quite limited. The Mars rover Opportunity recently passed the 30km milestone, having travelled more than 50 times its designated distance since its landing in 2004. Meanwhile, the crew of Apollo 17 covered more than 34km during their three days on the surface of the moon. Furthermore, as Ieropoulos pointed out, in nature it’s the static plants that use solar energy, whereas the more mobile and robust animals use organic sources within their own environment.
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