Even without a brain, Penn Engineering’s metal-eating robots can forage for food

Even without a brain, Penn Engineering's metal-eating robots can forage for food

When it comes to powering mobile robots, batteries present a troublesome paradox: the more energy they contain, the more they weigh, and therefore the more energy the robot needs to move. Energy harvesters, like solar panels, can work for some applications, but they don’t deliver power quickly or consistently for sustained travel.

James Pikul, an assistant professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, is developing robotic power technology that has the best of both worlds. Its environmentally controlled voltage source, or ECVS, works like a battery in that energy is produced by repeatedly breaking and forming chemical bonds, but it escapes the weight paradox by finding those chemical bonds in the robot’s environment, like a combine harvester. While in contact with a metal surface, an ECVS unit catalyzes an oxidation reaction with the surrounding air, feeding the robot with the released electrons.

Pikul’s approach was inspired by how animals feed themselves through the search for chemical bonds in the form of food. And as a simple organism, these ECVS-powered robots are now capable of searching for their own food sources despite lacking a “brain.”

In a new study published as an Editor’s Choice article in Advanced Intelligent Systems, Pikul, along with lab members Min Wang and Yue Gao, demonstrate a wheeled robot that can navigate its environment without a computer. By having the robot’s left and right wheels driven by different ECVS units, they show a rudimentary form of navigation and search, where the robot will automatically steer towards metal surfaces that it can “eat”.

Their study also describes more complicated behavior that can be achieved without a central processor. With different spatial and sequential arrangements of ECVS units, a robot can perform a variety of logical operations based on the presence or absence of its food source.

“Bacteria can autonomously navigate to nutrients through a process called chemotaxis, where they detect and respond to changes in chemical concentrations,” says Pikul. “Small robots have similar limitations as microorganisms in that they cannot carry large batteries or complicated computers, so we wanted to explore how our ECVS technology could replicate that kind of behavior.”

In the researchers’ experiments, they placed their robot on aluminum surfaces capable of powering their ECVS units. By adding “hazards” that would prevent the robot from making contact with metal, they showed how ECVS units could make the robot move and navigate to more energy-rich sources.

“In a way,” says Pikul, “they are like a tongue in the sense that they feel and help digest energy.”

One type of hazard was a curved path of electrical tape. The researchers showed that the robot would autonomously follow the metal rail between two conveyor lines if its EVCS units were connected to the wheels on the opposite side. If the lane curves to the left, for example, the ECVS on the right side of the robot would start to lose power first, slowing down the robot’s left wheels and causing it to swerve out of danger.

Another hazard took the form of a viscous insulating gel, which the robot could gradually remove by stepping over it. Since the thickness of the gel was directly related to the amount of energy the robot’s ECVS units could extract from the metal below it, the researchers were able to show that the robot’s turning radius responded to that type of environmental signal.

By understanding the types of signals that ECVS units can pick up, researchers can devise different ways to incorporate them into a robot design to achieve the desired type of navigation.

“Wiring the ECVS units to opposing motors allows the robot to avoid surfaces it doesn’t like,” says Pikul. “But when the ECVS units are in parallel with both motors, they operate like an ‘OR’ gate, ignoring the chemical or physical changes that occur under a single power source.”

“We can use this type of wiring to adapt to biological preferences,” he says. “It is important to be able to distinguish between environments that are dangerous and should be avoided and those that are simply inconvenient and can be traversed if necessary.”

As ECVS technology evolves, they can be used to program even more complicated and responsive behaviors in autonomous and computerless robots. By matching the ECVS design to the environment a robot needs to operate in, Pikul envisions tiny robots crawling through debris or other dangerous environments, carrying sensors to critical locations while being preserved.

“If we have different ECVS that are tuned to different chemistries, we can have robots that avoid surfaces that are dangerous, but traverse those that get in the way of a target,” says Pikul.

Research work

related links

University of Pennsylvania

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