In cartoons and the sillier side of sci-fi, robots tend to chow
down on nuts, bolts, and odd bits of metal, wires, and circuit boards.
But in real life, we know, robots don't eat at all. Right?
an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University
of South Florida at Tampa, has invented a gastrobot
that does indeed eatand it doesn't like hardware. This
one snacks on sugar, but eventually Wilkinson's machines will
dine on vegetation and fruit.
no joke. Wilkinson is part of a movement called biomimetics.
The idea is, when you have a technical problem to solve, you look
to nature for solutions. You mimic biology, he says.
In this case, there is a problem with how long robots can work outdoors
before losing power. Batteries run out, and sockets and long plug
wires are too limiting, as are photocells. So the notion was to
invent a robot that can forage.
the gastrobot to convert consumed food to energy inside its anaerobic
stomach using a fairly harmless form of the E. coli
bacterium. That process creates electrons. Another chemical, HNQ,
derived from the henna plant, collects the electrons, delivers them
to a fuel cell, then flows back to the robot's guts for more.
fine, but cubes of sucrose are rarely found lying around. So a working
model will have to be able to graze on whatever vegetation is handy.
The problem with feeding the gastrobot plants is, ahem, waste. We
call it robo-poo, Wilkinson jokes. The difficulty is not creating
little piles of robo-poo, it's how to dump the liquid and solid
wastes without losing any of the HNQ. Sugar works because the only
resulting waste is a tiny amount of carbon dioxide, which is easily
emitted. And yes, the robot belches a bit.
gets to the bottom of the waste-removal dilemma, he sees all sorts
of practical applications. Robots that mow lawns, eat the clippings,
and fertilize. Robots that live in gutters and eat their way through
dead leaves. Robots that help keep weeds and noxious plants under
the current version is happily lapping up sugar cubes. Made from
three wagon-like parts, the gastrobot moves on 12 wheels, and is
about three feet long and 18 inches tall. It looks a bit like
a train, Wilkinson says. Hence its nickname: Chew-Chew.
CHRISTCHURCH, New ZealandNew Zealanders are every bit as proud
of their potatoes as farmers in Idaho, but new research may dampen
their spirits somewhat. What's more, the findings could have
implications for educators preparing future engineers for inter-planetary
is an avid gardener. He's also a chemist in the soil science
department at Lincoln University, based near Christchurch on South
Island. In a comparison of potatoes and asparagus grown in the fertile
agricultural soil of the island's Canterbury region with samples
grown in soil taken from Martian meteors, Mautner found that plants
grown in phosphate-rich meteor soil were bigger than those reared
in New Zealand soil. He presented his findings at a recent astrobiology
conference at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.
research is important because we may have to turn skyward to feed
the world's population as it continues to expand. One
of the resources we'll have to use to grow food will be soils
found in various objects in the solar system, Mautner says.
The lack of
availability of water on Mars and its generally cold and unpredictable
surface temperatures may make such farming difficult. To use
these soils, we'll have to create an atmosphere and control
the temperature with a good deal of planetary engineering,
Mautner says, adding some other parts of the solar system have abundant
of soil resources, we can be more sure now than before that Mars
can support all this expansion, he says. Maybe, but from an
earthling's perspective Martian potatoes certainly won't
qualify as fast food.
SOUTH AFRICAThe showstopper at the Auto Africa Expo 2000 was
neither a powerful sports car nor a sumptuous luxury sedan, but
rather a dumpy little van with a top speed of 68 miles per hour.
So what's the attraction? It runs on air. Compressed air, that
the MDI e.volution, the vehicle's tiny 35-kilogram piston engine
is powered by 100 kilograms of compressed air from a 30-liter raft
of tanks lined up below the body. Emissions are so cool and clean
that the Web site for the South African company licensed to manufacture
the car, Zero Pollution Motors South Africa, features a video of
a man inhaling at the tailpipe. Perhaps more important to potential
buyers, the car is supposed to cost less than U.S. 32 cents to drive
100 kilometers (62 miles) in South Africa, where gasoline is expensive
and electricityused to compress the airis cheap. The
MDI e.volution is designed to travel 124 miles at city speeds before
it needs to be pumped up again.
engines are hardly new. Many factory tools and even forklifts run
on compressed gases. Formula One engine designer Guy Negre was familiar
with such motors because they are used to start racing cars. The
French engineer built an engine that maximizes efficiency by reheating
the decompressing air in stages. He then designed a lightweight
van around this 37-kilowatt engine and his company, MDI, licensed
it to 21 small manufacturers throughout the world. The French and
South African factories plan to be first in commercial production,
by 2002 and 2003, respectively.
claims of Negre and Zero Pollution Motors have raised some skepticism
within the South African engineering community. Costa Rallis, professor
emeritus of thermodynamics and mechanical engineering at the University
of the Witwatersrand and a leading designer of unconventional engines,
agrees that a breakthrough in the staging of the expansion of air
could improve the efficiency of such an engine. But he warns that
compressed air has traditionally been one of the least efficient
methods of powering an engine.
There are working prototype vehicles on the road, but about the
only people who have driven them are the investors in MDI. Doubts
about the technology's viability can only be addressed when
the manufacturers make prototypes available for testing, perhaps
later this year.
gasoline-electric hybrid cars have now been available in the U.S.
for nearly a year, and they are proving quite popular. According
to Toyota, the waiting list for its Prius averages five to six months.
The Honda Insight is available from most dealers with little or
no waiting. Each of the cars has a high EPA city/highway mileage
rate, with the Insight getting 61/68 to the Prius's 45/52.
Both models sell best in areas where there are high emission restrictions.
California, for example, accounts for 36 percent of all Prius sales.
Denver and Chicago are also hot markets.
Even members of Congress are fans of the hybrid car. Rep. Brian
Baird (D-WA) owns a Prius, and he believes the car's best feature
is the environmental aspect. When at a stop, the Prius doesn't
burn energy. Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) describes the Prius as a
green car with green technology. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-MD)
believes that such luxury cars as Cadillac and Lincoln will eventually
embrace the hybrid technology. All three representatives chose the
four-door Prius for its roomier interior and back seat; the Insight
is a two-door, two passenger hatchback.
Bartlett (R-MD), and Senator Barbara Boxer (D) have also snapped
up the Prius, and there might be more Congressional buyers on the
way. Baird says that since he has started driving his new car at
least a dozen colleagues have asked about it.