Companies developing biomass robot engine

By Anna Austin
Web exclusive posted Jan. 30, 2009, at 11:05 a.m. CST

Robotic Technologies Inc. has contracted with Cyclone Power Technologies Inc. to develop a biomass engine system to power the company's Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot-a vehicle which will be capable of self-obtaining and ingesting biomass to produce energy to power itself.

The $850,000 project is a Small Business Innovation Research effort funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a U.S. Department of Defense research organization.

RTI President Robert Finkelstein describes the patent-pending system as a biologically-inspired, organism-like robotic vehicle which finds and processes biomass in a manner similar to eating. Therefore, it will not need conventional refueling, but is capable of running on convention fuels when needed.

The contract with Cyclone will consist of two phases. In the first phase, within six months Cyclone will build and deliver an engine containing a biomass combustion chamber for demonstration purposes. In phase two, the company will build and deliver the biomass trimmer, gatherer and feeder system to work with its engine power source.

Through the duration of the project, the EATR will be tested to demonstrate its ability to identify suitable biomass sources of energy-such as wood, grass or paper-and distinguish them from unsuitable materials such as rocks, metal or glass. Its ability to spatially locate and manipulate sources of energy-cutting, shredding to size, grasping, lifting and ingesting-will also be tested, as well as its ability to convert the biomass to sufficient electrical energy.

The EATR will contain an autonomous intelligent control system with sensors allowing the vehicle to find and recognize energy sources, manipulate the material with robotic arms which contain and gripper and a shredder, and divert the biomass into the combustion chamber. The robot may generate 1 kilowatt hour of electricity for every three to 12 pounds of dry vegetation, which translates to two to eight miles of driving or more than 80 hours of standby. According to Finkelstein, 150 pounds of vegetation could provide sufficient energy for 100 miles of driving.

The electricity produced will provide an electric current to a battery pack, which will power the sensors, processors and controls, as well as the robotic arm.

"Our contract with DARPA requires an initial demonstration by April 2010," Finkelstein said. "We expect to have a prototype autonomous intelligent EATR vehicle by April 2011. An operational system could be available by 2012-2013."

Finkelstein said the company hopes to find customers for an operational system for military or civilian applications, such as agricultural vehicles (robotic or manned) that could use the biomass waste gleaned from the fields as a source of energy, as well as forestry and homeland security applications.

To learn more about RTI, visit