EcoBot III: What Goes In Must Come Out

Self-sufficiency in artificial life opens up a wide variety of possibilities for independent control and automation. Alongside the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), researchers at the University of Bristol’s Robotics Laboratory created the EcoBot III, created a robot that could sustain itself and independently remove waste products.

Dating back to 2002, the EcoBot III was originally known as the BREADbot, which stands for Bio-Regulation and Energy-Autonomy with Digestion robot. Simply put, this means that the robot was intended to regulate its bodily functions by independently acquiring energy while being able to remove its own waste in tandem. The EcoBot III has efficient onboard fluid circulation to control the three functions of ingestion, digestion and excretion. While the EcoBot III is self-sufficient, it requires energy in the form of Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs), which are a bio-electrochemical system that drives an electric current by using bacteria and a high-energy oxidant such as oxygen, thus mimicking bacterial interactions found in nature.

In order to create the bot, the research team had to overcome challenges in design by utilizing rapid prototype technology, allowing for a lightweight, strong, and complex robot. A pivotal part of the bot is its Ingestion/Digestion/Egestion vessel, where the aforementioned artificial digestion and waste excrement occurs. All of the ingested food and water turns into waste sludge, which is fed into the sludge distribution mechanism. This mechanism then distributes the sludge to its proper location, including an overflow compartment if necessary.

As the third generation of the EcoBot, what sets this version apart is its ability to excrete its waste. Through digestion and excretion, the robot prevents poisoning its own microbes, allowing it to continue powering itself. The second generation of the EcoBot simply harboured a rudimentary digestive system with sludge microbes, while the original was powered by E.coli. These waste-powered robots have caught the attention of NASA, who could potentially see great benefit from such technology in future outer-space missions.

Given its ability to consume matter, the EcoBot III has a wide range of possible uses in day-to-day processes. The EcoBot’s constant, automated functioning could be taken advantage of by the waste and agricultural sectors to reduce the waste of crops, livestock and by-products. The EcoBot III could also be used in pollution clean-up, showing additional environmental uses beyond its renewable energy aspect. The EcoBot team was awarded funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in late 2011 and hopes to leverage the robot’s energy-making potential to use matter such as urine to power small devices.

The EcoBot III brings new meanings to the concept of a living machine. Armed with energy autonomy and proper digestion, the EcoBot III remains a pioneer in the field of energy-autonomous artificial life.


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Photo by Courtenay Crane