In their still-brief history robots have, for the most part, been far removed from the organic world—they don’t exist in the realm of life and death, or hunger, food and waste. Robots’ existences are clean. They’re plugged in or recharged, and they work until they need a boost. But now some scientists are pushing to integrate robots into the rest of the food chain.
At the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, researchers are working on a robot scavenger, the EcoBot, a contraption that, one day, will hunt down its fuel—human urine—out in the field. The bot itself is a bit of a cyborg, an organic-metallic blend that uses bacteria, harnessed in microbial fuel cells, to consume human waste and convert it into electricity. Since not all of the urine can be consumed, the EcoBot, too, will produce its own waste. (Can robot-only bathrooms be far away?)
So far, the Bristol team have a robot that can move—slowly—and their fuel cell technology, running on pee, has been used to power a cell phone.
This isn’t the Bristol lab’s first foyer into hungry robots. Another bot, known as EATR, fed on bugs and plants, while in South Korea they’ve built a robotic venus flytrap.
More from Smithsonian.com: