The quest to build better robots capable of completing more tasks is an important one, that could lead to humanity as a whole having a much easier time of it. Robots already manage some of the most banal and time-consuming tasks related to manufacturing, or dangerous tasks such as bomb-disposal. In the future they will likely take on roles in a much wider field of jobs and industries. However, one aspect that few people seem to be considering as we approach a time when robots are a mainstream part of everybody's lives is the environmental impact such a scenario may have.

At the moment, robots are primarily made from metals and plastics, both of which offer rigidity and a long life ... a little too long of a life, in fact, with these materials being generally toxic and non-biodegradable. The overall impact on the environment of an army of robots doing our menial tasks could be massively harmful – unless an alternative is sought.

This is exactly the task that two British university researchers are setting themselves. With a £200,000 (US$324,000) grant from the Leverhulme Trust, Dr. Jonathan Rossiter from the University of Bristol and Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos from the University of the West of England are embarking on a two-year mission to find, "A robot that decomposes: towards biodegradable robotic organisms." Both are members of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), an organization whose main focus is on "the development of autonomous robot systems" – essentially, robots that can act by themselves in an intelligent manner without the need for human guidance.

Zero Environmental Impact

The current problem, as the two see it, is the need to continually track the movement of any robots sent out into the world on a mission. This is a necessity at present, as they will eventually need to be "recovered, dismantled, and made safe." Constructing robots from biodegradable materials, however, would mean they eventually cease to be, merely decomposing into the earth. The environmental impact would then be zero.

“In this project we will take a radical step away from conventional robots and we hope to create a biodegradable robot," Rossiter stated. "Once a biodegradable robot has reached the end of its mission, for example having performed some environmental cleanup activity following an oil spill, it will decompose into harmless material.”

An army of paper robots (Photo: Kristian Bjornard)

This need to track and recover robots is complex, time-consuming, and expensive. All three of these barriers to robotic innovation could be removed if this research leads to a breakthrough in using alternative, eco-friendly materials to build the robots needed for the tasks at hand ... making the possibility of an army of robots roaming the countryside a more feasible future to imagine, and one less damaging to our delicate ecosystem.

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