There's no doubt that autonomous robots fitted out with vision systems can perform some pretty useful tasks. For the military, such robots can help prevent injuries in the battlefield by providing soldiers with a remote insight into the nefarious misdoings of the enemy. On civvy-street, they can be used for the equally important purposes of improving the environment or keeping the borders of countries safe.
But these conventional robots are predominantly made of rigid resilient materials, many of which are non-biodegradable and have a negative impact on the natural ecology.
That means that any robot deployed in the environment must be continually tracked and, once it has reached the end of its useable life, must be recovered, dismantled, and made safe. But there is also the risk that the robot will be irrecoverable with consequent damage to the eco-system.
Now one might think that there's not a lot that can be done about this. After all, the computers, power sources and imagers used in such robotic devices are all man-made, and many of them are composed of some pretty toxic substances. And there doesn’t appear to be any alternative to using them.
But apparently, the academic folks at the University of Bristol (Bristol, UK) think differently. They believe that it might be possible to build robots that decompose once they have reached the end of their mission. While it all might sound a bit far-fetched, the idea has won Dr. Jonathan Rossiter, Senior Lecturer in the University of Bristol’s Department of Engineering Mathematics, a two-year grant of over £200,000 from the Leverhulme Trust (London, UK) to work on developing robots that rot.
That's right. Dr. Rossiter, together with Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Engineering, Design and Mathematics at the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol, UK), aim to show that autonomous soft robotic artificial organisms can exhibit an important characteristic of biological organisms -- graceful decomposition after death.
Since there will no longer be the need to track and then recover such robots, the deployment of large numbers of biodegradable robots in the environment will become inherently safe. Hundreds or thousands of robots could therefore potentially be deployed, safe in the knowledge that there will be no environmental impact.
Now I'm sure that there are some among you who believe that Dr. Rossiter plans are all a bit pie in the sky. But I'm not one of them. This year, for example, we have already seen the development of micro lens arrays produced by a mineral precipitation by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (Potsdam, Germany).
Nevertheless, I'm going to be very interested to see if and how those UK researchers can build an entire robot that is totally biodegradable. I guess we'll just have to wait a couple more years to find out.
For more information on the work of the researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory -- including a robot powered on a diet of flies -- click here.