Nov 18, 2015 | By Kira

Inspired by the aquatic water boatman beetle, Researchers at the University of Bristol have created a 3D printed robot that can self-propel, or ‘row’, along the surface of lakes and ponds, consuming microbes as it goes. Since the row-bot is powered by the microbes it eats, it does not require any recharging, and has the potential to be used in environmental monitoring and water clean-up systems.

Row-bot with mouth open to take in water – inset shows mouth closed

The prototype bot consists of two bio-inspired subsystems: the first is a propulsion mechanism that allows the beetle to glide across the water’s surface; and the second is it’s ‘stomach’, a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) that converts the microbes extracted from the water into electricity for the motor. Essentially, as the robot ingests bacteria-laden water, the MFC converts the latter into electricity, powering a few strokes of the paddle and propelling the robot to ingest even more water, and so on and so forth. This cyclical process makes for an energetically autonomous artificial organism capable of long-term self-power.

In order to produce the most efficient movement possible, the researchers tried to capture the essence of the water boatman. As the developers explain, the legs of the water boatman are covered by swimming hairs that span laterally to maximize drag during the power stroke and collapse to minimize drag during the recovery stroke. But whereas the beetle has hair-covered legs, the row-bot’s propulsion mechanism is comprised of a 3D printed paddle powered by a tiny 0.75 watt brushed DC motor.

Image of the water boatman beetle

The row-bot paddle was made as a 3D printed composite structure with a rigid frame that supports an elastic membrane. This membrane can either stretch to increase paddle surface, or, thanks to an integrated hinge, change the angle of the attack on the part of the paddle that remains underwater during the recover story, thereby reducing drag and increasing overall efficiency. The researchers added that the rigid frame was 3D printed with VeroWhite acrylic based photo-polymer, whereas the membrane was 3D printed in TangoBlack.

So we’ve covered how it can glide across the water’s surface, but how exactly does the row-bot clean its aquatic environment? This is accomplished thanks to its ‘stomach’, which houses the MFC. Within the MFC, water-contaminating bacteria is easily broken down into carbon dioxide, protons, and electrons, which fuel the cells to generate an electrical current.

“The energy generated exceeds the energy requirement to complete the mechanical actuation needed to refuel. Energy production and actuation are demonstrated separately with the results showing that the combination of these subsystems will produce closed-loop energetic autonomy,” wrote the developpers.

The results of the research were presented last month in a paper titled “Row-bot: An Energetically Autonomous Artificial Water Boatman” at the 2015 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Hamburg, Germany. The authors are Hemma Philamore, Johathan Rossiter, Andrew Stinchcombe and Ionnis Ieropoulos, all of the University of Bristol.

 “This work demonstrates a suitable system for robots operating autonomously for extended periods in the environment,” said the researchers, adding that that this work is a crucial step in the development of autonomous robots, and the first practical robotic application to use a single MFC, demonstrating the potential of the technology as an energy supply.

The next steps will be to add monitoring, remote sensing, and control systems that would allow the row-bot to be used in environmental monitoring and clean-up projects. For example, they could be used to monitor lakes for pollutants or deadly pathogens, and if found, either deploy more row-bots or some other system to restore water quality.

Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll all be wearing 3D printed Sponge Suit bikinis and sharing the lanes with various 3D printed, water-cleaning row-bots, swimming freely in pristine waters thanks to 3D printing environmental technology.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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