University researchers are developing robots that decompose once they have reached the end of their mission.
The two-year research project into biodegradable robotics is being carried out at the University of Bristol with a grant of more than £200,000 from the Leverhulme Trust.
Conventional robots are predominantly made of rigid resilient materials, many of which are toxic, non-biodegradable and have a negative impact on the natural ecology.
Any robot deployed in the environment must therefore be continually tracked and, once it has reached the end of its useable life, must be recovered, dismantled, and made safe. This adds enormous complexity to the running of robotic projects and there is the ever-present risk that the robot will be irrecoverable with consequent damage to the eco-system. Additionally these characteristics severely limit the number of robots that can be employed since each must be tracked and recovered.
Dr Jonathan Rossiter, senior lecturer in the University's department of engineering mathematics, is working with co-investigator Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, a senior research fellow at the University of the West of England, to show that autonomous soft robotic artificial organisms can exhibit an important characteristic of biological organisms: graceful decomposition after death.
He said: “In this project we will take a radical step away from conventional robots and we hope to create a biodegradable robot.
“Once a biodegradable robot has reached the end of its mission, for example having performed some environmental cleanup activity following an oil spill, it will decompose into harmless material.”
Since there will no longer be the need to track and recover each robot, the deployment of large numbers of biodegradable robots in the environment will become inherently safe. Hundreds or thousands of robots can therefore potentially be deployed, safe in the knowledge that environmental impact will be zero.
Biodegradability will enhance the abilities of the Ecobot robot developed at the BRL. Ecobot is an autonomous robot that gets its energy from the consumption of biomass from the environment.