May 3, 2012 at 1:54 PM ET
A roboticist at the University of Bristol has received a grant to look into "biodegradable robotic organisms." The idea is that these robots, instead of being built from metals and plastics, would decompose naturally — which sounds a bit odd at first, but is in fact full of advantages.
Imagine if a few thousand robots had been released into the Gulf of Mexico to help with oil cleanup. Because they are made of and powered by toxic and non-degrading materials, each one would have to be tracked, checked on, and eventually retrieved. This would require a major expenditure of resources, both human and material.
Biodegradable robots, on the other hand, would be of the "fire and forget" variety. Once deployed, they would do their job until they run out of power, and then simply stop, sink and disappear.
On top of that, Dr Jonathan Rossiter, who received the £200,000 (~$325,000) grant to develop the robots, has already created bots that run on biological materials. These "Ecobots" have what he calls Microbial Fuel Cells, which mimic digestion and process foods like fruit — or flies.
Put these two together and you have a robot that can run indefinitely by eating what it finds in the environment, and which decomposes when it runs out of energy. The applications are fun to think about, but it must be said that the idea of an autonomous, food-eating robot that eventually "dies" may be a bit too close to a living being for some.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.