The Truth about EATR

It is always gratifying when something I'm involved in gets a wide reception around the Internet. In the case of EATR (see post, below) there has been a lot of speculation and just wild rumors about what we are trying to do with the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot. For example

Bot Junkie: Robot runs on Soylent Green
The Register: Robot to consume all life on earth as fuel
DARPA Funds Flesh Eating Robot

Which stories basically took the concept of a robot that finds its own food, and then wildly speculated on what that food might be, because in the press releases we just said "biomass" without specifying what that might include.

I'm one of the principles involved in EATR, as my company is one of the commercial investors in this project.


EATR was always conceived as identifying, selecting, and consuming vegetable matter (leaves, twigs, branches, grass) as its energy source. In particular, the easiest vegetable matter to grab from the robot's perspective, is what is already lying on the ground - dead leaves, dropped branches, etc. That material is gathered up and then ground into small bits that can be easily dropped into the burner. EATR IS A VEGETARIAN.

So EATR is far more like a robot cow or horse, grazing for its food to convert to energy.

And frankly, we don't have any means at all of converting protein into energy, so any sort of animal material would be useless.

As noted in the press release, there are four parts of EATR:
the computer system with the sensors,
a large robot arm,
an external combustion engine (in this case, the Cyclone power unit)
the mobility platform (i.e. a car or mobile vehicle like a golf cart)

In the first phase of EATR, all of the components are stationary and mounted on a platform. We will be "teaching" the system to recognize potential food, and be able to pick it up and place it in a container. That alone is a very difficult prospect. In this stationary state, we will be placing different materials near the robot and using various sensors to identify and classify the material, and then use 3D sensors to show the robot where the material is and how to pick it up. Right now we are using small tree branches about 1/2 inch in diameter.

The material will go into a chipper that will render it down into sawdust. What will work best is dry leaves, twigs, and small branches--in other words, dead vegetable matter.

The team chose a steam-type engine (actually an external combustion engine) since that was the simplest and most direct way to make energy out of found material. We can just burn the material and use the heat to make electricity, which is our aim.

So the main food source of EATR, what we will get the best energy from, will be dead plant material that has dried out. Animal biomass would not be usable at all.
We are also planning for EATR to have a helper. It carries one or more smaller "marsupial" robots in a garage in the back of the vehicle (see image). We are thinking that these smaller robots (like the Elbit Beagle Robot pictured) can assist the larger "mother" vehicle to gather material into a heap that would be easier to pick up. The small "joey" robots would be battery powered and recharged by the larger EATR main vehicle. This would help deal with small scale objects like dead leaves that may not be efficiently picked up by the large robot arm by itself.

For our next phase, if we get to do one. is to create a more sustainable fuel source. NASA refers to what we do as "In-Situ Resource Utilization" or ISRU. They are studying using processes to extract fuel, air, and water from local materials on the Moon, and Mars. It is obviously a tremendous advantage if you don't have to carry all of your supplies with you everywhere you go. Here on Earth, the EATR team is considering some sort of bio-mass fuel creation, either using alge to make some sort of oil or bio-diesel, or something to do with either methane or ammonia, both of which can be used in internal combustion engines. It probably would not hurt to suppliment the energy budget with some solar electricity.

What do you do with an EATR? We've come up with a list of ideas, which include long border patrols, pipeline inspection, long term climate studies, wildlife research, mobile observation posts, and forest management. Any project that needs long duration missions away from civilization would be a possible application.

Frankly, I'm as interested in other technological spinoffs as the possiblility of making fuel. Just solving the object recognition and manipulation tasks would have immediate benifits for tasks like humanitarian landmine removal, or creating a robot that could tend plants. EATR represents an serious advance in autonomous robotics, and has tangible benifits to the military and society in general. I'm proud to be a part of the project, and particularly delighted to be working with the calibre of talent that is involved.

Also, by the way, I created most of the artwork that you are seeing in the press on EATR, including all of the pictures on this blog. Dr. Jim Albus created the original robot design, and I created the drawings. The "Tree eating robot" cartoon was my idea.


  1. Hi - thanks for your comment. Just to let you know, I'd already written several articles declaring EATR a vegetarian. See EATR Robot Is A Vegetarian and 'Electric Sheep' Runs On Real Grass - EATR Robot. I also linked to your blog entry on the first of the two articles noted above - good details!

  2. howdy,

    every now and then i check around on the net to see how robots are progressing. last time i checked, i was mostly enamored with boston dynamics bigdog. but i sorta remembered something about a robot that was based around turning foliage into steam power. so of course i went after that as far as i could.

    it took me a while, but i finally started running into heaps of sites after i added the word flesh to my search, as i was running outa key words. seems people are still really suspicious. so as i was thumbing through some posts and i ran across one you slapped down in the name of sanity. so i thought id see what kinda truth your cookin up.

    but instead im just gonna throw some words at ya :P

    as an objective researcher i cant help but feel a lil paranoid when dealing with a robot who's goal is to remain self perpetuating in the wild by consuming twigs, grass and the like. whilst also keeping its engine goin, an articulated arm twirling, who knows how many different kinds of internal biomass processors, which probably includes a pretty tough shredder, and a state of the art on board computer.

    given that its a steam engine it must need water. so is this thing gonna drink from streams? or could it press the biomass internally to supplement its need for liquids? if so does it take time to dry the stuffs before deciding to start a fire? its questions like these that lead me to one end all question.

    given all of the above, is there anything you can really say to convince the public that this ground breaking machine couldn't run on any biomass it got its lil grasper on?

    with such a diverse engine that can seem to run on just about anything, fatty oils even... it may just prove easier to say "we tried to get it to eat a squirrel, but it felt the meat was too stringy." rather then just denying you would ever try such a thing.

    well thanks for your time and sorry about all the grammar and spelling errors... there's no spellcheck on this thing :(

    actually i just found the spellcheck... still sorry bout the grammar though.


  3. Quick comment from the blogger: Our steam engine is a closed cycle engine - we don't exhaust any steam like an old-fashioned locomotive might. Our steam is recycled back into water as part of the energy converson process, goes through a condensor and goes back into the "boiler" - we use water as a working fluid, and we don't use up our water as we operate - thus we don't need to find water periodically.

  4. being that most of our current wars are in the desert, whats it going to eat there?

  5. Responding to Anonymous, we actually looked this up, There are only two areas - Death Valley and the deep Saraha desert, that are void of vegetation completely. In other desert climates, there is actually quite a bit of plant life about, so this is not as much of a hinderance as you might think.


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