Who needs fossil fuels? Not EATR

Most people are familiar with robotic characters that either assist or destroy humanity. It is a popular theme in science fiction to show the future as one with immense incorporation of technology and humanity, whether it is good or bad. One helpful character is Robocop: a crime-fighting, nearly indestructible cop who is part machine. A do-gooder made of steel and wiring seems the ideal way to go up against an enemy without risking the lives of humans.

The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR), created by Robotic Technology Inc. is not even remotely human-shaped, but rather looks more like a Mars Rover than anything resembling Robocop. Regardless of its appearance, according to the blog of Francis X. Govers III ­— one of EATR’s creators — EATR will occupy a wide variety of niches, from police and military applications to long-term environmental studies and pipeline inspection.

Powering EATR is an external combustion engine, which can burn a wide variety of fuel, from dry organic material to many different kinds of fossil fuels. In order to produce power the engine burns fuel, which in turn produces heat, boiling water and producing steam which is then turned into electrical energy. This means that, technically at least, EATR is a steam-powered robot. EATR’s engine is called the Cyclone Engine or Waste Heat Engine and was developed by U.S. research and development firm Cyclone Power Technologies. Due to its unique design, the engine produces relatively large amounts of power and very low amounts of exhaust gasses compared to a traditional internal combustion engine like you would find in an automobile. The increased efficiency can be attributed to the engine’s open external layout, which allows for better mixing of fuel and air, and in turn leads to cleaner and more efficient combustion.

To fuel the steam engine, the robot forages for organic detritus while on the road completing its mission. To do this, EATR is equipped with many different types of sensors and a robotic arm, which together can recognize appropriate fuel sources, such as twigs and grass clippings in its environment, and add them to its engine’s burner. EATR’s sensors can also easily recognize inappropriate fuel sources such as dead bodies. Ensuring such a distinction is crucial because EATR is sponsored by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This means it is intended to explore battlefields, and the Geneva Conventions define the desecration of a dead body as a war crime.

Initially several media reports painted EATR as a carnivorous robot.One news story even went so far as to suggest that EATR was capable of building copies of itself, and it was only a matter of time before an army of these robots would devour us all. Govers dispels these rumours in his blog by pointing out that EATR’s engine is only capable of burning dry plant matter, such as leaves and twigs, and since they “don’t have any means at all of converting protein into energy, any sort of animal material would be useless [to EATR].”

In addition to its clever engine, EATR has been designed to perform many tasks in battlefield situations. For example, EATR’s back is essentially a large flat platform on which many different mission packs can be mounted, such as a medical response package. So equipped, EATR could provide medical supplies to wounded soldiers in combat areas without risking the lives of medics. Since EATR can fuel itself, the only other necessary energy sources would be the ones powering the medical equipment on board.

A more strategically offensive application would be to turn EATR into an unmanned tank. Attaching weapons to the top of EATR’s platform would allow the military to respond to dangerous situations without risking the lives of soldiers. EATR’s versatility would allow many different kinds of weapons to be mounted.

However, despite the fact that it is a project funded in part though the American military EATR has many other applications and is very adaptable to other non-military situations as well.

EATR is equipped with a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence that Robotic Technology Inc. calls 4D/RCS which stands for four dimensional (up/down, left/right, forward/reverse and time) real-time control system. This control system allows EATR to process large amounts of information and either recommend a possible course of action to its operators or make the decision independently. This ability to function without user input frees military personnel to perform other tasks. ’

The advancement of robotics is astounding, and the division between science fiction and reality is lessening. However, as great as EATR may be for many applications in both the military and civilian sectors, there is still controversy over what robots may be able to do eventually. Just as with any new technology, as many ways as there are to do good with it, there are as many ways to do bad. Technology is increasing faster than society can deal with its implications. New technology that gives the impression of being born from science fiction will continue to be viewed with suspicion until both the creation of new technology and society’s understanding of it unite onto the same path.