If you live in a family of average size, you know the bathroom can get pretty crowded. Now you may soon have to make room for your robot, too.
Scientists working out of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory have invented a robot that powers itself by collecting its own food and water, digests it, then poops out the waste, according to Scientific American. It may sound unconventional, but scientists hope that a new generation of these "ecobots" will not only be self-sustaining, but may even help recycle and reuse food waste.
"Robots that eat biological fuels could find enough fuel almost anywhere," said John Greenman, a microbiologist at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. "There is organic matter anywhere on Earth — leaves and soil in the forest, or even human waste such as urine and feces."
Yes, that's right. Robots fueled by organic matter will not only require their own toilet: they may even someday be a toilet, collecting human feces for power. It's certainly an unexpected twist on the old idea of inventing robot maids.
The first prototype invented by the Bristol Lab, Ecobot, was equipped with a microbial fuel cell that was powered by E. coli bacteria that fed on refined sugar. The second prototype, Ecobot-II, harnessed sludge microbes to break down dead flies, prawn shells and rotten apples. Soon, though, scientists recognized they had a problem: waste. These early prototypes had no way of dumping their leftover waste, eventually becoming "poisoned" by their own filth. This concern is what led to the current model, Ecobot-III.
"EcoBot-III is a robot that collects its own food and water from the environment," said Ioannis Ieropoulos, a roboticist at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. "It performs the task we design it to do, and at the end of the day, it gets rid of its own waste. It literally craps into its own 'litter' tray."
The research has garnered funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and NASA is already knocking on the door with particular interest in the idea of a robot powered by human feces. Space robots powered in this way could make ideal companions for astronauts on long space flights, such as a trip to Mars.
Perhaps the biggest benefactor of the new Ecobots, though, will be the family dog, who usually gets blamed when there's an errant odor in the house. Now, perhaps, we can blame the robot instead.