The single most important resource in the future will, without a doubt, be energy. Humanity’s energy needs have increased dramatically over the past couple of centuries and that trend will absolutely continue. We’re already experiencing an energy supply problem, as evidenced by our continuing reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels. Energy storage is also becoming more of an issue as we attempt to move away from those fossil fuels. An electric car, for example, needs a heavy battery. More storage capacity equals more weight, which requires more energy to move — a catch-22. That problem extends to robots, which is why a team of researchers have developed a robot that feeds on metal and can navigate autonomously without a brain.
This technology was inspired by biological organisms, which are able to collect energy from their environment by eating. An animal doesn’t need to store a tremendous amount of energy in its body, because it can chow down whenever it needs to top off its energy reserves. The same is mostly true for traditional gasoline-powered cars. Your car doesn’t require a huge gas tank, because you can quickly fill up at any gas station along your route. But charging batteries takes a relatively long time and infrastructure is lacking. The latter is a problem that is being addressed in the transportation industry, but not for robots. A robot navigating far away from its “home” has no easy way to recharge its batteries. This robot, developed by University of Pennsylvania researchers, can continuously recharge by “eating” metal in its environment, like a whale collecting krill.
This robot harvests energy from metal using environmentally controlled voltage sources (ECVS), which break and reform chemical bonds to generate a small current. The robot’s ECVSs can produce electricity from aluminum that it drives on, for example. More interestingly, it can do that autonomously without any computer “brain.” By driving two wheels with two ECVS units, but crisscrossed, the robot will automatically steer itself to stay on the aluminum sheet. If one EVCS leaves the aluminum, it will stop producing electricity. That means the electric motor on the opposite side will no longer spin, which forces the robot to turn back towards the aluminum until the EVCS is producing electricity again. This is analogous to jellyfish, which do not have brains. They only have a very rudimentary distributed nervous system. But, as with this robot, that is enough to continue moving and collecting food. This research could eventually result in robots that can operate autonomously and indefinitely.