Row, Row, Row your Bot

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-3-640x425     waterboatman

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.

row-bot

Row-bot

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.

row bot

Row-bot Design

               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:

https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_rossiter_a_robot_that_eats_pollution

The scientific paper:

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Hemma_Philamore2/publication/308866083_Row-bot_An_energetically_autonomous_artificial_water_boatman/links/5841717408ae8e63e6218320.pdf

More related articles:

http://www.wired.co.uk/article/water-row-bot-polluted-water-bristol-university

http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2015/november/row-bot.html

https://www.engineering.com/DesignerEdge/DesignerEdgeArticles/ArticleID/14412/Bristol-Robotics-Lab-Demonstrates-Robots-That-Eat-Pollution.aspx

https://www.engr.psu.edu/ce/enve/logan/bioenergy/research_mfc.htm

 

 

 

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31 thoughts on “Row, Row, Row your Bot

  1. It’s interesting to think that we’ve come far enough to have a robot that can mimic so many characteristics of an actual animal; this one basically has a functioning metabolism. I do have concern about the biodegradable component of the row-bot. First, in order to stop eating when full and begin to store electricity, the bot will need a battery. I don’t know for sure, but I do not think that we are on our way to creating biodegradable batteries. In addition, biodegradable items sometimes degrade even faster in water. Add salt into the mixture, and the row-bot may not be able to structurally survive its full journey. Since something this robotically complex would require such advanced resources and technology to make, I don’t think we would want it to be only for one-time use. I feel that it would be better to use these bots, then recollect them and clean the salt off of them for another quest. Overall, this is a great post, and I am excited to see the future of the row-bot.

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  2. I think this is an awesome creation. I didn’t realize we were at a point technologically where we could have devices “feed” off of bio-matter and generate electricity. I would be very interested in seeing a closed experiment where the Row-bot feeds of of water contaminated by oil. This really could be a breakthrough invention.

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  3. This is super cool! I think that often times people think of and use technology in ways that are “opposite from” or working against nature, so it is great to see this invention that uses technology that integrates into natural systems. I agree with Chase, I don’t completely understand how a biodegradable version of this robot could be created, but if it can be done that would be awesome!

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  4. This is a great invention! It is awesome how we can use biomimicry to help solve some of our greatest problems. I had no idea that something like the Row-bot was out there and I would love to see this work in full scale. With more awareness and research, I think governments could really utilize this creation for spills in water.

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  5. I really like the idea of basing design off the natural world. I think simple machines and devices like pumps and valves should be first taught through examples in biology, then shown how we mimic those designs. Nature always does it better.
    Would it be feasible to gather algal blooms on a large scale and then use MFCs to generate energy commercially? If this could be done with some amount of return (the energy generated being greater than the energy used to harvest), it would solve two problems. It would decrease algal pollution and increase renewable energy, which in turn slows climate change. Interesting article!

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  6. I agree with those above that this is a really awesome invention and a great article. It would seem to me that we would need a large amount of the robots to really make an sizeable impact, but the first steps have been paved. I did not realize that we could create robots that basically eat, digest, and motabolize things – amazing! My only concerns are how much these things cost, and would other animals try to eat it?

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  7. I think this is a cool idea that we are able to mimic nature and its processes. I do think that it’ll be hard to overcome some challenges like getting stuck. If the robot get stuck on a limb or something in the water, it can’t move and “eat” more. It’ll stay there until the battery dies and then it has no purpose. With it also being non biodegradable, this could pose an issue. I do like the idea of using pollution as a fuel for energy, but why couldn’t we do this on a much larger scale than a small robot? Overall, great and interesting read.

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  8. I think its a really cool invention, and could be used if perfected. My biggest concern, however is if this invention would be helping the pollution short-term while adding to the pollution long term. Maybe having a few very large ones of these instead of tons of smaller ones, and just pick them up after they have done their job would be more feasible than putting out hundreds of these things to clean up pollution. Either way, I think it is truly amazing that someone was able to design something with such unique and innovative features that is able to turn pollution into fuel using microbes. Thanks for sharing.

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  9. This is very interesting. I think it is clear that as detrimental effects of climate change continue to make themselves known, more and more people are finding their niche in being part of the solution. It is as if it is creating an entire industry around counteracting these problems. This is a perfect example. I only wonder what extent climate change must reach before the industry has a chance to gain enough strength to make a difference.

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  10. Putting aside the awesome ingenuity and creative design of the row bot (it’s pretty neat, let’s be honest), I wonder if we as a society will keep coming up with inventions to clean up our messes without addressing the inherent causes of the messes. I mean think about it, what does it say about our society if we are willing to spend more money and resources on cleaning up the mess of eutrophication/algal blooms and not the over enrichment of agricultural fields and suburban lawns with fertilizer? We would need A LOT of these to clean up even small lake systems like Lake Ogechobee in Florida. Cool story though!

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  11. I love this idea! I think it’s interesting how they are actually using what the robot is collecting as the power source, as opposed to just collecting the pollution, containing it, and using an outside power source, such as solar. Kind of seems like this robot is knocking out two birds with one stone. I’d be interested in seeing how this robot could scale up.

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  12. This is an amazing concept. But I wonder what this says about us as a society. Will we keep treating the symptoms, or will we eventually address the disease?

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  13. This is a really interesting concept. The idea of a robot that could swim the ocean and clean up harmful materials in it autonomously is incredible. I think this could be very helpful in cleaning our oceans. My main concern would be how large can these autonomous vehicles be made. Cleaning the ocean is a massive task and if they are able to be of substantial size it may take a long time.

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  14. This is pretty cool. However, it seems like these robots would run into problems if they pick up plastics or large debris. Do they have the intelligence to navigate themselves to move around those obstacles?

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  15. Do you know the energy input to energy output ratio? Like does it all cancel out? If this is made in affordable way, I think it could be great for cleaning up water ways that have been affected by pollution. Of course for the future though, I am always for prevention first!

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  16. This technology will be the future! Instead of having this object “swimming” in a river we can maybe use the same technology in moving bodies of water that can help reduce pollution. The only problem I may say with this technology is that we may be producing more waste (plastic and battery waste) than we can harvest from the water. Before this can be expanded into the real world, we have to make sure that we can harvest more waste than the machine takes to build.

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  17. This sounds like a phenomenal idea to deploy to prevent catastrophic events like oil spills and reduce using “cleaners” that may have potential negative effects themselves on the local environment. My first question with this new technology would be what are the material and economical costs, as in what materials would be used in constructing these little machines (nothing too toxic, I would hope) and is it cheap enough to sway clean-up efforts away from the conventional methods to this new one? My second question is concerned with the deployment and collection after the clean-up of these tiny machines. We do not want to leave lots of tiny plastic bugs out in the environment post clean-up purely from a trash dumping stand point, but also potential interference these might cause in the food web – i.e. higher tropic animals mistakenly eating them. Biomimicry is definitely the way forward though and this is just another great example of us using evidence from the field-tested “technology” via evolution in the environment.

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  18. This is an interesting idea. I think this could be very useful if it can be scaled up and used for large areas. I’m also wondering what pollutants this system works on and what its limitations are. I think this would be most useful on smaller scales such as bays or ports but I don’t think this will be a solution for larger problems like the dead zone off the gulf coast.

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  19. I think this is really cool!
    I love that the inventor is inspired by biomimicry and has utilized that to create a design that would fit in with its environment. Do you happen to know how having these row-bots in the water affects fish and other living organisms in the water? Also, have they tested the row-bot on a larger scale to feed on pollution?

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  20. Like many others I think this is a great idea. The use of devices like these to help clean the ocean could have a huge impact on helping to clean up the oceans and other bodies of water. The only question that really comes to mind when reading this is for an even like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill how many of theses devices would be needed to clean up an area that large?

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  21. It is refreshing to see biomimicry executed at such a great extent. I do not know how well this will preform when scaled up but it is interesting to see that there are engineers experimenting with this from all angles. Depending on the materials used in the final versions of this robot, the resource input may outweigh the environmental impacts. I do not see this as a permanent solution, but I think it has potential to become a form of technology that can buy ecosystems some time as other projects are also being worked on.

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    1. Often times when I hear about the latest engineering environmental “cure”, it’s some crazy idea, but seeing engineers learning from the life that has already solved such struggles on a small scale is nothing short of impressive. I’m unsure of the dimensions of the Row-bot and how much ground it can cover over a period of time in terms of removal, but I definitely think an innovation like this is ground breaking and a step in the right direction.

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  22. Firstly, great read about something I’ve never heard of before. I think this is a great idea for what could be an aid to dirty, polluted water. As far as your questions go, I think we would need to see how the row-bot could perform in extreme conditions like an oil spill. Would it be able to attack as soon as possible in extremely polluted areas, or would the pollution need to be spread out more finely after the incident? I don’t imagine it would be able to last very long in extreme condition so it may be worth waiting to deploy this tactic as I would assume this technology is not cheap.

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  23. Hearing about this is awesome. The fact that it can help clean up some of the pollution in the waterways is great to see. The only thing I would not be sure on is how effective this method would be compared to other methods if the same time and effort was put forth. Great article and would be cool to see in person.

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  24. I just think biomimicry is really interesting, and it has so much potential to inspire creative solutions to environmental and other societal problems. As others have pointed out, this technology would probably be quite difficult to implement on a large scale. However, I can see this having some neat applications in industry for cleaning up smaller stormwater detention ponds and such. I think most environmental problems are going to require more focus on upstream sources for any real and significant change – but technologies like this are certainly important for things that slip through the cracks.

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  25. The rowbot is a really cool piece of technology that I had previously never heard of. My concern for the applicability of this design is the size. Judging by the diagram the rowbot is very small which makes me wonder exactly how many of these would need to be released for there to be a noticeable positive impact.

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  26. This is pretty insane! A functioning metabolism must have been quite the challenge to design realistically. Does it have a minimum on what it needs to digest effectively? As in, would there be an instance when the machine failed to gather all the pollution targeted but also failed to collect enough to keep going? Part of me is also curious to know if something would try and eat it if the design became to biological…

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  27. I think this is a really neat idea. There is so much waste and I don’t think this will be feasible for a large scale clean-up with this small of a robot. Maybe if this thing was actually shark sized, we could utilize it in oceans, but at the size it is now, it seems as if it would work best in small ponds. I also think it’s a very good idea to use waste as a source of energy, like burning landfill gas.

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  28. Awesome article! The topic of biomimicry is really cool. I am especially interested at how we can integrate the microbial biota with the technological shell. I work in AI so I definitely see a future where these bots are programmed to do more. I want to know how best we can use biotechnology to do things that humans can’t. I’m also reminded of a past blog post with an oil-soaking sponge– perhaps mixing the two innovations and using different materials, we could make bigger changes?

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  29. I am intrigued by this design from a mechanical standpoint. There are several different systems in this one robot that are innovative. Specifically, the MCF system, is an area that needs more research. If we can harness clean energy all the while cleaning the environment I am all for it.

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  30. This is a really interesting design; I hope that it can be developed further to be useful in larger spills. I am wondering if there is a max to the amount these guys can clean up, and if they could be continually used or if they have a life. If so, then waste will become a problem with these devices, if not, then it is an ideal solution.

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