When Robotic Technology, Inc., and Cyclone Power Technologies announced earlier this month they had completed the first phase of their project to build a robotic vehicle that could scavenge sticks, grass, leaves and other biomass to fuel itself, the companies had no idea that their proposed machine would set off one of humanity's worst fears: the dawn of an artificially intelligent race of self-sufficient mechanical devices with a hunger for organic meals (including people). The companies quelled last week's clamor that their Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) was being developed as a carnivore by pointing out that it will, in fact, be a vegetarian.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out exactly how EATR will distinguish between flora and fauna, not to mention grab potential fuel with a robotic arm, deposit it into an onboard combustion chamber, and digest it into fuel. The basic technology that will let EATR differentiate a piece of wood (good) from a rock (bad) is an autonomous intelligent control subsystem called 4D/RCS. The Intelligent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has spent more than $125 million and three decades developing it.

"We're looking at the sensors we need—optical; laser detection and ranging (LADAR); infrared; acoustic; and others—and the characteristics that we'll need to distinguish biomass and nonbiomass," says Robert Finkelstein, president of Washington, DC-based Robotic Technology, "and then locate the biomass within a 3-D space so that it can be grabbed by the robotic arm." Until now, autonomous vehicles, such as the SUVs competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, were taught to view vegetation as obstacles rather than the main objective itself, he says, adding that his company should have the necessary algorithms to do this task developed "within the next few months."

Another challenge for EATR's makers will be the robot's ability to chop or otherwise break up the biomass material into smaller pieces, grab those pieces and place them in the combustion chamber.

Whereas phase one simply required a "a fleshing out of the concept," Finkelstein says, phase two is scheduled to conclude in April 2010 with a proof-of-concept demonstration that shows how the EATR engine and combustion chamber, both built by Cyclone Power (based in Pompano Beach, Fla.), will work together to power the vehicle. Cyclone Power announced today that the company has begun durability testing of its Waste Heat Engine, which is EATR's power source. Over the next month, Cyclone will run its engine for several hundred hours under the load of an electric alternator and then break down the engine to study the effects of long-term operation on its components.

The reaction in the combustion chamber will generate heat, which generates energy, Finkelstein says. The electricity created by this energy will feed into a multicell rechargeable battery pack that powers EATR's systems, ideally making it a hybrid vehicle that can perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional refueling.

Robotic Technology chose to include a battery pack in EATR so that it can operate like a hybrid (switching to electric power when biomass is not available). Finkelstein hopes this design will enhance phase three: when his company has to build an operational prototype that the government or a contractor might want to buy.

Both DARPA and defense contractor Elbit Systems of America have invested in EATR, and Boeing has signed a letter of intent to do so, as well, Finkelstein says, adding that this funding is sufficient to carry the project into 2011. (He declined to say how much these organizations have invested, citing competitive reasons.)

Media outlets, including Fox News, reported last week that EATR could extract energy from cadaverous "human bodies," which both companies denied, pointing out that desecration of the dead is a war crime under Article 15 of the Geneva Conventions. (Fox News has since updated its article to reflect this response.)