Flesh-Eating Robot Research Languishing

Flesh-eating robot research is not progressing as quickly as you might think. As you will learn, many of the pieces are in place.

First there was SlugBot, a robotic slug catcher that was able to autonomously identify and pick up bothersome garden pests.

(Slgbot 360 degree reach arm with light sensors)

But SlugBot is no mere battery-powered toy. SlugBot could hunt down up to 100 slugs per hours and then use their rotting bodies to generate electricity, thereby keeping itself running.

The choice of prey is deliberate; a robot must learn to catch slowly oozing prey, before it can run after more agile creatures. "Slugs are slow," said Dr. Ian Kelly, SlugBot's creator. "You can't expect the speeds of a cheetah chasing a zebra. Slugs are small and manageable."

SlugBot picks up its prey and feeds it gently into an on-board hopper. Although you wouldn't think that slugs would struggle or fight back, it can be a problem. "There is a problem with stopping the captured slugs from climbing out," Kelly said. "We may utilize a low-energy electronic shock system to keep them in the container."

After hunting slugs all night, the robot returns to its home base and dumps its victims into a fermentation tank, which turns the slugs into electricity to fuel another night's work.

Although SlugBot was an improbable winner of Time Magazine's 2001 Inventions of the Year award, I haven't seen them at my local home and garden store.

But not to worry. EcoBot-II was developed in 2004 by Melhuish, Greenman, Ieropoulos and Horsfield at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) in the UK. EcoBot skips the fermentation tank step and is a fully self-contained predatory robot. EcoBot-II was able to run for 12 days after being fed 8 houseflies. However, it should be noted that it did not catch its own flies, relying instead upon willing human servants.

(EcoBot II)

Moving on to larger prey, reporters were alarmed last year when an erstwhile robotic gastronomist, an electromechanical sommelier, was created; the robot was able to identify wines, cheeses, meats and hors d'oeuvres. So far so good.

However, when a reporter placed his hand in the robot's jaw receptors, he was identified as bacon. When a cameraman tried the same test, he was identified as prosciutto.

(Robotic sommelier knows its pork)

This past year, French researchers have created an artificial mouth, to allow robots to taste in a rigorous way for the first time. “The artificial mouth is composed of a sample container (600 mL), a notched plunger, and variable-speed motors to control precisely the speed of compression and rotation movements. The container is maintained at 37 °C by means of a laboratory thermostat (Bioblock Scientific) via an outer layer. The container is sealed with a cap maintained by a circlip.”

(Robotic chewing device diagram)

Chewing is one thing, but could a robot even consume larger prey? You're wondering, I know. Take a look at this "rescue robot" that is able to consume a reclining human (watch where you nap).

(Tokyo fire department rescue robot pulls person in)

Anyway, it seems to me that the pieces are all in place. Perhaps we should be grateful that, on this occasion, the wheels of progress are moving more slowly. Thanks to Moira for suggesting this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/16/2008)

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