Machine machinations: Smart robot capable of hunting for its own "food"

Ok, maybe this is getting a little too close to bringing Terminator-like robots to life. For starters, eco-friendly engine builder Cyclone Power this week inked a contract from Robotic Technologies, Inc. (RTI) to develop what it calls a beta biomass engine system that will be the heart of RTI's Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR).

The purpose of EATR is to develop and demonstrate an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling - in other words it needs to "eat."

According to researchers, the EATR system gets its energy by foraging, or what the firms describe as "engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy-harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating. It can find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil, and solar) when suitable."

I can see it now: One day you walk out to start you car only to find this robot sucking your tank dry. "Sorry, I was hungry," it says."

But I digress. Backed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Defense Sciences Office, the EATR robot's inherent advantage is its ability to engage in long-endurance, tedious, and hazardous tasks, such as reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition under difficult conditions, without fatigue or stress, DARPA said.

Application examples include long-range, long-endurance missions such as search and rescue in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan; search missions for nuclear facilities and underground bunkers in rogue nations; special operations and counter-insurgency; patrolling remote borders; homeland security; serving as nodes in distributed and remote command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) networks; and serving as remote, mobile sensor and target tracking platforms in ballistic missile defense systems, DARPA said.

Chief strategists with the military and perhaps civilian first responders envision EATR working with unmanned aircraft in the sky providing additional intelligence to locate targets or help direct rescuers.

According to Cyclone, the development project is expected to have two phases. In Phase I, Cyclone will build and deliver within six months the engine with a biomass combustion chamber for demonstration purposes. Cyclone believes that its radial six-cylinder, 16HP Waste Heat Engine (WHE) system is ideally suited for this application. In Phase II, Cyclone would build and deliver the biomass trimmer/gatherer and feeder system to work with its engine power source.

Cyclone likens its engine to a modern day steam engine, designed to achieve high thermal efficiencies "through a compact heat-regenerative process, and to run on virtually any fuel - including bio-diesels, syngas or solar - while emitting fewer greenhouse gases and irritating pollutants into the air."

"Cyclone brings to this project one of the most advanced external combustion engine technologies we have seen," stated Dr. Robert Finkelstein, President of RTI in a release. "In terms of power-to-size ratio, scalability and fuel flexibility, the Cyclone engine is ideal for a self-sustaining, autonomous intelligent robotic vehicle designed for unique military or civil applications."

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