Meet Row-Bot: the machine that can eat

What if a robot could turn dirty water into its own energy and simultaneously clean the environment?
10th November 2016

Does the sound of a robot that is self-sustainable arouse your curiosity? Well, this concept is fast becoming a reality – and it’s being used to rectify a small portion of our environmental woes.

“[Row-Bots] can manage their own energy and get rid of their own waste, whilst cleaning up the environment”

 

Developed thanks to a collaborative effort from BRL, BBiC, University of Bristol and UWE, Row-Bot is an artificial organism powered by bacteria from dirty water. We caught up with Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos to tell us more about this exciting project he tells us, “If developed to a high technology readiness level and deployed successfully, these would be the next generation robotics, which can manage their own energy and get rid of their own waste, whilst cleaning up the environment.”

Feeding Row-Bot

The robot is based on the same fundamentals as the EcoBot, which was built back in 2010. The idea is to create a fully autonomous robot, meaning it doesn’t just know how to efficiently use its energy, but it is also able to extract this energy from its environment. Ioannis explains, “The robot is a soft-bodied artificial agent, which is powered by Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs).

“Bacteria in MFCs breakdown organic matter and generate electricity directly. The electricity is used to power a range of devices, including robotic actuators, as in the case of Row-Bot or EcoBots.”

“We envisage these machines to be used in remote area access for monitoring, telemetry and remediation”

 

The robot has a mock digestive system to enable it to turn food into energy. It has a ‘mouth’, made from a soft polymer membrane, which food (technically water that contains living organisms) can pass through. This is then pumped into the robots ‘stomach’ that contains MFCs filled with bacteria. The bacteria ‘digests’, or rather dissolves, the organisms which in turn creates energy for the robot! To complete the process, it even has a canal in the back for waste removal.

Helping a hand to humans

row-bot-diagramThe team collaborating on the project want to take steps to solve the underlying issue of utilising robots in areas with scarce availability of electricity – and Row-Bot could be the answer!

The aim is to eradicate the reliance robots currently have on us to provide access to electricity.

Since the robot can function independently for extended periods of time, it can be sent into places that would pose a risk to us, for example, water environments that are contaminated with radiation. Ioannis adds, “Following the EcoBot line of work, we envisage these machines to be used in remote area access for monitoring, telemetry and remediation, since the MFCs generate electricity by cleaning-up the organic feedstock being consumed.”

The Row-Bot’s unique technology could also be used to assist cleaning up oil spills and generally help to create a safer, cleaner ocean in the long term.

Even more impressively, the artificial metabolism has no negative environmental effects. The system doesn’t utilise fossil fuels and doesn’t produce CO2 as a byproduct, aside from what happens naturally during vegetable decomposition, making this a very eco-friendly robot!

A big thanks to Ioannis for taking the time to talk to us. You can find out more about the use of Microbial Fuel Cells  from Bristol Robotic Laboratory’s website. You can also follow all those working on the project: @BristolRobotLab@UWEBristol@BristolUni@bristolbio.