It’s no secret that many of the greatest innovative designs are those inspired by nature, from the invention of Velcro inspired by burrs to the use of sonar technology inspired by dolphins. The main idea of biomimicry is that many of the environmental problems that future generations will face have already been confronted and resolved by nature on a smaller scale. Let’s be honest: animals, plants, and microbes are the original engineers.
As world population grows, many environmental issues have been recognized such as algal blooms from agricultural runoff, and other water quality stressors like chemical spills, specifically oil. So, what if we could create something to “eat” the pollution before the aquatic environments in which they have been released experience the negative impacts of the stressor? Many scientists predict that climate change will increase the number of harmful algal blooms due to a rise in favorable warm waters, increase in salinity, changes in rainfall patterns, and coastal upwelling. Historically we have used things such as algaecides and detergents to interfere with algal blooms and oil spills, but are we really “cleaning” the pollutants, or just adding to them?
A roboticist from Bristol University Robotics lab, Jonathan Rossiter, has demonstrated his appreciation for biomimicry by introducing a new robot: the Row-bot. The Row-bot is a small, autonomous robot that feeds on dirty, polluted water. The robot’s design was created using characteristics of the basking shark and the water boatman. The basking shark is a non-carnivorous shark that feeds on plankton, and swims with its mouth wide open in a forward motion. The water boatman is a small, aquatic insect that uses arms shaped like paddles to ‘row’ itself forward through the water.
|Basking Shark Water Boatman|
Rossiter designed the Row-bot to be equipped with three basic structures that many living organisms need: a brain, a body, and a stomach.
The Rowbot’s body consists of a plastic frame, which allows for flotation along the surface of the water, a mouth, and a rear opening. The “stomach” is a microbial fuel cell. The pollution flows through the wide opened mouth and enters the fuel cell. The MFC consists of oxygen on one side and a mixture of microbes on the other side. As the microbes feed on the pollution collected in the cell, electricity is generated (to learn a little more about MFCs, click on the Penn State link at the bottom). The electricity generated is used to set the paddle shaped arms into motion, and move the row-bot throughout the water. After the Row-bot’s “stomach” has reached capacity, it will close the mouth and rear end and “digest” the pollution to create electricity for its next swim.
Currently, the Row-bot needs to be equipped with GPS transmitters so that it can be collected after clean-up due to its nonbiodegradable components. Eventually designers would like to create Row-bots out of biodegradable materials so that, much like other living organisms, once it has done its job it can degrade to nothing.
Do you think the Rowbot’s design is feasible for being utilized in chemical spills or areas affected by agricultural runoff? Do you think that local governments could utilize the Rowbot upon finding undesirable water quality?
Check out the full Ted Talk, given by Johnathon Rossiter from Bristol University here:
The scientific paper:
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