Biomass-based robot to feed, power itself

By Anna Austin
Maryland-based Robotic Technologies Inc. has contracted with Florida-based Cyclone Power Technologies Inc. to develop a biomass engine system capable of obtaining and ingesting biomass to produce energy to power itself.

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

Robotic Technologies President Robert Finkelstein described the patent-pending Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, the concept of which was first developed in 2003, as a biologically inspired, organism-like robotic vehicle that finds and processes biomass in a manner similar to eating. Therefore, it won't need conventional refueling, but is capable of running on convention fuels when needed.

The contract with Cyclone Power Technologies consists of two phases. Within six months of the first phase, Cyclone Power Technologies 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 into sufficient electrical energy.

The robotic arm and an end effector will be attached to the robotic mobility platform directly or affixed to a platform towed behind the vehicle. It will have sufficient flexibility, extend sufficiently from the platform, and have a sufficient payload to reach and lift appropriate materials in its vicinity. "The end effector will consist of a multi-fingered hand with sufficient degrees of freedom to grasp and operate a cutting tool, such as a circular saw, to demonstrate an ability to prepare biomass for ingestion, and to grasp and manipulate biomass for ingestion," Finkelstein said.

The robot may generate 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity for every three to 12 pounds of dry vegetation it ingests, 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.

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