Jonathan Rossiter is a roboticist with an interest in biological organisms and movements. Taking lessons from animals and applying those to environmental problems created new opportunities to develop robots. In his TED Talk A robot that eats pollution Rossiter discusses his current projects and some ideas about the future of altruistic robots.
The first problem is pollution caused by overpopulation, specifically from the extra pollution caused by overfertilization of fields and eventually the water supply. Algae blooms from pollution pull oxygen from the water and away from the organisms that live in the water. Oil tankers also cause pollution as their holds are flushed into the sea, causing problems for the ocean ecosystem.
Rossiter’s solution is a robot that can eat the pollution out of the water. The two biological inspirations for the robot are the basking shark and the water boatman. A basking shark opens a wide mouth and swims through water collecting plankton. The water boatman has legs that look like paddles and propel the body of the bug forward in the water. His mechanism, called the Row-bot, is built with a plastic frame and rows through the water.
Three main systems make up the Row-bot; a brain, a body and a stomach. The body’s plastic exterior has attachments for paddles, a mouth to bring water in and an exit to let clean water out. The stomach is built around a microbial fuel cell that converts pollution into electricity to propel the robot. Row-bot’s brain controls the digestion system and motion.
Rossiter’s microbial fuel cell has oxygen on one side and microbes on the other, and when organic material is introduced it can be absorbed by the microbes. Microbes can be tuned to eat algae, petroleum spirits or crude oil.
The current Row-bot uses microbes that generate very small amounts of energy, down on the milliWatt scale. Scaling the robots up so they can eat enough pollution to clean the oceans is one current problem, and using only biodegradable components that can degrade to nothing over time is another item on Rossiter’s wish list. Other big ideas at the end of the talk are robots that can be made from jelly and will dissolve in water over time, and robots that we can swallow and will give body diagnostics and then degrade in our systems. Rossiter is one of my favorite ‘soft robot’ engineers and this is a great talk full of current progress and future possibilities.