Even without a brain, autonomous metal-eating robots can search for “food”

Last March, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) revealed their autonomous metal-eating robots. Unlike most other robots on the market today, UPenn’s robots have the ability to follow a metal path without needing to rely on a battery or other external power source. This means that the robots are programmed to move towards metal surfaces and avoid anything that blocks the source of its energy.

This project is led by James Pikul, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Pikul is working on technology that can power robots without having to add to their overall weight. Called environmentally controlled voltage source (ECVS), this energy source functions the same way a battery does. But unlike your everyday, run-off-the-mill batteries, Pikul’s environmentally controlled voltage source looks for substances to form chemical bonds with around the robot’s environment, similar to a harvester. This is how the autonomous metal-eating robot is able to move.

When the robot is on a metal surface, its ECVS reacts by catalyzing oxidation with the air surrounding it. This oxidation reaction frees up electrons, which are what power the robot and propel it to move.

Apparently, Pikul was inspired by the way that animals are able to power themselves using food. Pikul decided to replicate that in the way his power source works, and the result is robots that can function without needing a computer or a “brain.”

In a study published in Advanced Intelligent Systems, Pikul and with colleagues Yue Gao and Min Wang were able to effectively demonstrate this new technology by using a wheeled robot that can move and navigate its surroundings without using a computer. The team fitted the robot’s left and right wheels with different ECVS units, and this allows the robot to show basic navigation and foraging skills. The robot automatically heads toward metallic surfaces it can obtain its power.

Further development of the ECVS technology will enable the power source to program more functions and behaviors in autonomous, “brainless” robots, making them more intelligent and functional. Pikul envisions more miniature versions of his robot being able to move through rubble or harsh environments without getting harmed.

This will be able to provide people with pertinent information that otherwise cannot be obtained by humans or standard robots. According to Pikul, “If we have different ECVS that are tuned to different chemistries, we can have robots that avoid surfaces that are dangerous, but power through ones that stand in the way of an objective.”

If this actually happens, it could change the way we gather information and help us make a little more sense of the world we live in. Pikul’s “brainless” robots may be able to help us discover things that we never really were able to before because of human limitations. We can’t wait to see how his research progresses over the years!

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Misha Fabian

Athlete | Performer | Writer

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