Thinking Tech

Little bot of horrors: Insect-eating robots act as Venus flytraps

Posting in Food

Insect-eating robots take advantage of a model inspired by the mysterious Venus flytrap.

Robots might bake cookies or vacuum your rugs, and that all sounds very nice. But what do you think about robots trained to eat living organic matter, as in machine versions of the carnivorous Venus flytrap?

Two protoypes have been built following the model of Venus flytrap’s lobes, the ones that snap shut in milliseconds when insects brush its trigger-sensitive hairs. At first I thought such robots would be great in barns or jungles to catch nasty flies and mosquitos. Of course the goal is much more along the lines of autonomous robots. Scientists are calling these prototypes a big step towards robots that can hunt and catch their own meals...for fuel.

At Seoul National University, Seung-Won Kim and colleagues developed one prototype using shape memory materials that move when subjected to force or an electric current. The two snapping leaves of the robot are made from carbon fiber. The weight of an insect or object causes a spring to contract and closes the leaves together, ensnaring its prey.

The other prototype developed by Mohsen Shahinpoor’s team at the University of Maine uses artificial muscles made out of polymer membranes covered with gold electrodes. The electrodes act like the fine hairs on the Venus flytrap. Electrical currents force the membranes to move in different directions. When a bug lands on the membrane the tiny voltage it generates causes the membranes to have opposite charges and so become attracted to one another. They quickly close shut in an effort to be closer, trapping the poor insect.

Of course up to this point it still feels like an awesome fly-catcher as opposed to animal-eating machines about to take over the earth. As a post in iO9 aptly noted:

An insectivorious robot would probably have to transport the dead prey to some type of mechanical-chemical gut for digestion and caloric production, which would be quite a feat.

On the other hand New Scientist quotes a scientist who has built an insect-eating robot already:

"We should be able to benefit enormously from these flytrap technologies," says Ioannis Ieropoulos of the Bristol Robotics Lab in the UK. He and colleagues previously developed Ecobot, a robot that can digest insects, food scraps and sewage to power itself. Ecobot uses bacteria to break down a fly's exoskeleton in a reaction that liberates electrons into a circuit, generating electricity.

[via iO9]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure