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EATR- The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (artist's impression :P)

The Victorian Era (1837-1901) is a period of human history that I’ve always felt had its own an inimitable charm, what with its delightful gas-lit city streetlights, its tailcoats and top hats, and its neo-Gothic architecture (an example of which is the U.K.’s Houses of Parliament, which were rebuilt between 1840 and 1870 after the original palace was destroyed in a fire). But without doubt, one of the most enduring icons of the Victorian Era, and the concomitant Industrial Revolution, was the ubiquitous steam engine.

Coal-fired steam engines were what drove everything from the great railways, the mines, the textile mills and other factories, the pumping of the domestic water supply, and the irrigation of farmland. By the 20th century, though, advances in internal combustion engines (the kind that’s in your car) and electric motors (like in the ceiling fan above you), and the adoption of oil as a fuel spelled doom for the once-mighty steam engine.

Or did it? Maybe steam was just waiting for a comeback born of the drug-induced hallucinations of some crazy scientist at a government laboratory. I presume that that must be what happened because, seriously, no one in a normal state of mind could come up with something like EATR (Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot): a steam-powered, vegetarian robot. It’s still primarily a concept, but a working prototype is being built.

The motive for creating something like this (apart from the obvious “Because we can!”) is that such a robot could theoretically operate indefinitely in environments where conventional fuel sources are hard to find. It’s perfect for the American Army, for instance, because it would allow them to dispatch teams of EATRs to perform reconnaissance missions in environments like forests. It could also allow human soldiers to rest while it forages for biofuels, recharges electrical devices, or even transports heavy machinery. Civilian versions of the EATR could be used for forestry patrol and for agricultural applications.

The EATR uses image-recognition software linked to a laser and a camera to recognize plants, leaves and wood. 68kg of vegetation would provide enough electricity to travel around 160km, its builders estimate. Once it identifies appropriate fuel, a robotic arm gathers and prepares the vegetation before feeding it through a shredder into a combustion chamber. The heat from combustion turns water into steam, which drives a six-piston steam engine that turns a generator that creates electric power to be stored in batteries and delivered to EATR’s electric motors when needed. A little circuitous? You bet.

As well as using biomass, EATR’s engine can also run on petrol, diesel, kerosene, cooking oil or anything similar than could be scavenged. The ability to consume a wide range of fuels would be important if the vehicle found itself in areas like deserts, where vegetation may not be available and alternative fuel would be needed.

The robot is actually being developed by a private firm, Robotic Technologies, Inc., but has received funding from DARPA- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a US government agency. DARPA is, of course, no stranger to outlandish research projects. If the ARPANET that they had created by 1970 to link government communications networks could turn into the behemoth that is the Internet today, who’s to say that we won’t soon be letting our cars out to graze at night, instead of taking them to petrol stations?

[For a hilarious press release from Robotic Technology Inc, countering media claims that EATR feeds on the dead, go to]

[Most of the information in this article is from Technology Quarterly (June 12, 2010), a publication of The Economist]


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