See Inside December 2010

A Wandering, Plant-Eating Robot

It gobbles up wood chips, leaves and other “biomass” and generates electricity

THE DAY COULD SOON come when autonomous robots roam the planet in search of raw biomass to consume for power. Such is the vision of the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot system, although you can call it EATR. “Imagine the robot in the movie WALL-E—but instead of just compacting trash, it's combusting trash for electrical energy,” says Robert Finkelstein, director of the Intelligent Systems Laboratory in the Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland and president of Robotic Technology, the company developing EATR. The robot uses intelligent software to visually distinguish its preferential “food”—wood chips, dried leaves and other vegetative biomass—from nonuseful materials such as rocks, animal matter and metal. Then, using a robotic arm guided by a close-range laser-based guidance system, EATR grabs the vegetation and places it into a hopper leading to an external-combustion engine, which charges an onboard battery.

Such self-directed power generators could revolutionize many military, civilian and even scientific operations, Finkelstein says. “In the next few years every U.S. soldier will use the equivalent of 120 AA batteries every day to power his communications and support equipment,” he says. “Using an EATR would greatly reduce the logistical burden of supplying that energy in remote locations, because [the robot] can be out consuming vegetation while the rest of the unit rests.” Funding for EATR comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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