Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Bristol Robotics Laboratory
News Article | December 11, 2015
A pair of socks embedded with miniaturized microbial fuel cells (MFCs) and fuelled with urine pumped by the wearer's footsteps has powered a wireless transmitter to send a signal to a PC. This is the first self-sufficient system powered by a wearable energy generator based on microbial fuel cell technology. The scientific paper, 'Self-sufficient Wireless Transmitter Powered by Foot-pumped Urine Operating Wearable MFC' is published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. The paper describes a lab-based experiment led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). The Bristol BioEnergy Centre is based in Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol. Soft MFCs embedded within a pair of socks was supplied with fresh urine, circulated by the human operator walking. Normally, continuous-flow MFCs would rely on a mains powered pump to circulate the urine over the microbial fuel cells, but this experiment relied solely on human activity. The manual pump was based on a simple fish circulatory system and the action of walking caused the urine to pass over the MFCs and generate energy. Soft tubes, placed under the heels, ensured frequent fluid push–pull by walking. The wearable MFC system successfully ran a wireless transmission board, which was able to send a message every two minutes to the PC-controlled receiver module. Professor Ieropoulos says, “Having already powered a mobile phone with MFCs using urine as fuel, we wanted to see if we could replicate this success in wearable technology. We also wanted the system to be entirely self-sufficient, running only on human power – using urine as fuel and the action of the foot as the pump.” “This work opens up possibilities of using waste for powering portable and wearable electronics. For example, recent research shows it should be possible to develop a system based on wearable MFC technology to transmit a person's coordinates in an emergency situation. At the same time this would indicate proof of life since the device will only work if the operator's urine fuels the MFCs.” Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) use bacteria to generate electricity from waste fluids. They tap into the biochemical energy used for microbial growth and convert it directly into electricity. This technology can use any form of organic waste and turn it into useful energy without relying on fossil fuels, making this a valuable green technology. The Centre has recently launched a prototype urinal in partnership withOxfam that uses pee-power technology to light cubicles in refugee camps.
News Article | December 13, 2015
The world is ending. The sports fields are empty, the science labs closed. No babies have been born for years. Cut to a split screen of human and robots kissing passionately. “They’re trapped!” says the narrator, voice like gravel. “Trapped in a soft, vice-like grip of robot lips.” Words slam against the screen, a warning. “Don’t. Date. Robots.” Except Futurama’s 2001 episode “I Dated a Robot”, with its post-apocalyptic world of silvers and blues, wildly overestimated how long it would take before this fear became flesh. It’s November 2015, and in Malaysia, where humidity is at 89% and it is almost certainly still raining, David Levy, a founder of the second annual Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, is free to talk on the phone – he is less busy than planned. “I never expected to end up here,” he says. I hear a shrug. The Congress on Love and Sex with Robots was meant to begin on 16 November, but was deemed illegal days after Levy arrived from London. “There’s nothing scientific about sex and robots,” inspector-general of police Khalid Abu Bakar told a press conference, explaining why. “It is an offence to have anal sex in Malaysia [let alone sex with robots].” “I think they thought people would be having sex with robots or some strange thing like that,” Levy’s co-founder Adrian David Cheok said afterwards, explaining that they had planned a series of academic talks about humanoid robotics. But some strange thing like that, some strange thing like a human having sex with a robot, is what Levy, Cheok and others are predicting is almost our reality. They have seen the future of sex, they say, and it is teledildonic. Teledildonic. The word rolls around the mouth like a Werther’s Original. While there are a variety of romantic tech-sex developments appearing weekly – from the ocean of Oculus Rift possibilities to an invisible boyfriend who lives on your phone, each new development rich as a Miranda July story but as doom-laden as one of Margaret Atwood’s – it’s teledildonics that are exciting not just the porn industry, but scientists too. Long hyped as the new wave in erotic technology, these are smart sex toys connected to the internet. And while they started life as vibrators that could be operated remotely, today the term has expanded to loosely include the new generation of robotic sex dolls. Cultural analyst Sherry Turkle warns we’re rapidly approaching a point where: “We may actually prefer the kinship of machines to relationships with real people and animals.” Certainly we have long had a fascination with these half-women, from The Bionic Woman in the 1970s to Her in 2013, where Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with his computer’s operating system. This year, Ex Machina’s Ava seduced, killed and killed again. In 2007 Ryan Gosling starred opposite a “RealDoll”, Bianca, in the indie romance Lars and the Real Girl. The film ends with him gently drowning her in a lake. A recent study by Stanford University says people may experience feelings of intimacy towards technology because “our brains aren’t necessarily hardwired for life in the 21st century”. Hence, perhaps, the speed at which relationships with robots are becoming a reality. Today the RealDoll team, infamous now for its lifelike sex dolls (of which they claim to have sold more than 5,000), is extending its range to develop an artificial intelligence system capable both of following commands and talking back to its user. A Realbotix head (reports the New York Times) which can be attached to the existing RealDoll body will cost around $10,000, and will be available in 2017. In a piece entitled “Is This the Dawn of the Sexbots?”, the company’s owner David Mills explained the appeal of these warm-to- the-touch dolls, telling Vanity Fair he loves women but “doesn’t really like to be around people”. “Women have enjoyed sex toys for 50 years,” he said (after introducing his first model, which arrived at his home in what looks like a customised coffin, head not yet attached), “but men are still stigmatised. We have to correct that. I want to be the Rosa Parks of sex dolls. Men are not going to sit in the back of the bus any more.” The people leading us into the future of sex had other lives before (RealDoll’s Mills, for instance, is best known for the book Atheist Universe, which Richard Dawkins cites as “admirable work”). David Levy is a British international master of chess. With his white hair and a sharp eyebrow, he has the look of a cynical Einstein. It was chess that led Levy to computing, consulting in the late 1970s on the development of a chess module for home computers. In 1997, and again in 2009, he won the coveted Loebner prize, which awards the programme that is best able to simulate human communication. “What do you do when you’re not doing the Loebner prize?” asked Judge 3 to Levy’s chatbot, Do-Much-More (the offspring of his first winner Do-A-Lot). “Oh, I do much more than I intended to do at first. I got more interested in the job as I went along.” Judge 3: “Is that difficult?” Do-Much-More: “No, it isn’t at all difficult. It is as peaceful as a platypus playing with a potato pudding.” In 2007 Levy published Love and Sex with Robots, a book that one USA Today critic found “troublingly arousing”. Just as same-sex love and marriage have finally been embraced by society, he argued, so will sex with robots. “Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans,” he wrote. The dream is, as one would expect, utopian. Prostitution will become obsolete. Artificial intelligence will be the answer to many of the world’s problems with intimacy. “The number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practised between humans will be extended, as robots teach us more than is in all of the world’s published sex manuals combined.” Levy predicted “a huge demand from people who have a void in their lives because they have no one to love, and no one who loves them. The world will be a much happier place because all those people who are now miserable will suddenly have someone. I think that will be a terrific service to mankind.” Unless… Unless… One chilly night in February I was chilled further by The Nether by American playwright Jennifer Haley. The story is set in a dystopian future in which people, so disillusioned by real life, decide to abandon it altogether, “crossing over” to spend all their time online in virtual worlds such as The Hideaway. Here, protecting their anonymity by living as avatars, they are able to do whatever they want. They rape children. The online world is sunlit and quaint, with a jolly host called Papa, who, when they enter, offers his guests a little girl. After they’ve had sex with her, they are invited to slay her with an axe. There are “no consequences here”, assures Papa. And in this play is one of the questions that arises when we stare into the near-future of sex, with its machines and its promises, its employment of the technology used for shoot-’em-up games now reinvented for fucking. Porn actor Ela Darling, when asked by Vice in a discussion about tech and sex: “What would you do if someone fully scanned you and could do whatever they wanted with you?” answered: “That’s probably the future. And that’s OK with me.” Is it a robot’s role to do the things that humans can’t, or won’t? Will they be the solution not just to the problem Levy discusses, of loneliness, but to the problem of people whose desires are illegal? And then what does this mean for the rest of us? Robots are evolving fast. They were invented in Bristol in 1949 by William Grey Walter, who was investigating how the brain works. It is fitting then, that down a wooded slope on the University of the West of England campus, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is today considered a world leader in its field. The lab covers an area of 3,500m2, its vast yellow-lit space divided into glass sections littered with hard drives and disembodied prosthetic limbs. In the centre is a house. This is their “assisted living” smart home, where researchers are testing systems that could help people with dementia and limited mobility. By the sofa is a “sociobot” that can respond to facial expressions. The most human-looking of the systems, over by the dining table, is a robot called Molly. She has a tablet in place of a chest, for displaying photographs, and “She’ll say, for instance,” my guide explains: “‘Do you remember Paris?’” In that echoing space I found myself suddenly breathless. When David Levy was 10 he visited Madame Tussauds waxworks museum with his aunt. “I saw someone,” he said, “and it didn’t dawn on me for a few seconds that that person was a waxwork. It had a profound effect on me – that not everything is as it seems, and that simulations can be very convincing.” Levy has rarely left the air-conditioned confines of his lab since he arrived in Malaysia. There are no windows. The door leads on to the forecourt of a small shopping mall, and next door, looming yellowly beside the river that marks the border with Singapore, is Legoland. On Google Maps it looks as though a giant child has discarded a toy on her way in for tea. In his lab Levy is working on the new Do-Much-More, a chatbot that, he says, after two weeks is already better than last year’s Loebner winner. “When you have a robot around the home,” he tells me, “whether for cooking or for sex, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a chat with it?” Levy has very little time for jokes. Or, it turns out, for philosophy. “Are humans machines?” I ask him. He tells me he’s learned not to try to answer philosophical questions. Ethics, however, he’s interested in. “People ask: is it cheating? Only if women using vibrators are cheating. Will sex workers be put out of business? It’s possible.” What about bigger issues though – what about sex and empathy? And: can a robot consent? “When AI advances, robots will exhibit empathy. People will feel towards them as they do towards animals.” He pauses: “Look. One has to accept that sexual mores advance with time, and morality with it. If you had said a hundred years ago that, today, men would marry men and women women, everyone would have laughed. Nothing can be ruled out.” Nothing? “You think that’s scary? Millions of scary things rely on technological advances. Toy drones, for example. That you can buy on the high street and attach anthrax to, and kill hundreds of people. This, this I find frightening.” It took some time (we continued our discussions on email) before Levy was prepared to answer a question about the thing that had been troubling me – if robots are his solution for men who can’t have relationships, does he think they’re also the ethical choice, say, for a man who wants a relationship with a child? He was reluctant to discuss this, pointing me to a keynote talk he did in Kathmandu called “When Robots do Wrong”. Which was fascinating, but didn’t answer my question. Eventually he responds, his email a sigh. “My own view is that robots will eventually be programmed with some psychoanalytical knowledge so they can attempt to treat paedophiles,” he said. “Of course that won’t work sometimes, but in those cases it would be better for the paedophiles to use robots as their sexual outlets than to use human children.” However evolved they become, robots will always be distinguishable from humans. They call it the “uncanny valley” – the point at which humans become uneasy at a robot’s humanness. So, even as the technology evolves, scientists will ensure there will always be something. Not a glitch, necessarily, not a ding, but a something. “And because of that, robots will never replace humans. They’ll simply become an extension of our lives.” Levy’s main thesis is that the advent of sex robots will help the lonely. The people who find it impossible to form relationships. “If that were me, I’d rather have sex with a robot,” he says, “than no sex at all.” Robot sex, it’s implied, could save humanity. His wife, he tells me, is sceptical about the idea. So is ANTHROPOLOGIST Kathleen Richardson. She says: “Levy is wrong.” Richardson is a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University and director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. “David Levy is taking people’s insecurities and offering a solution that doesn’t exist,” she explains. “Paedophiles, rapists, people who can’t make human connections – they need therapy, not dolls.” She perches on the edge of an armchair and explains the recent history of robots. Over the past 15 years, the purpose of robots developed for domestic use quietly changed. In South Korea they have set a goal for every home in the country to have domestic robots by 2020. But will they really be tools to help around the house, or will their main appeal be as a companion? “This move,” towards socialised robots, “is happening in hyper-capitalist societies driven by neo-liberal ideas.” Where people, she says, are becoming distant from each other; where in warm living rooms families sit together but apart, each concentrating on individual screens. It’s a direct path, she believes, from the way we communicate through machines, from social networking, to robots. And this, she says, is dangerous. Richardson looks at how we attribute sociability to objects. She showed me a silent animation from 1944, in which two triangles and a circle move around a diagram of a house. To me, it was clear both that this was a tragic love story, and also that I was being moved by anthropomorphised lines. “A robot is not just a developed vibrator,” she laughs, the sort of laugh that does not necessarily follow a joke. As the sex trade with machines grows, and these objects take on increasingly humanoid forms, Richardson will be asking: “What does this mean? And is it harmful?” As I explore the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, I realise that each glass-partitioned wall surrounds another ethical dilemma. The drones, so helpful when monitoring climate change. Tiny swarming “kilobots”, inspired by ants, modelling future ideas for cancer treatment. The too-realistic human head, with its soft skin and unfinished skull. Here there is a feeling of scholarly possibility, fuelled by earringed men, large coffee cups. In one cubicle, knee-height Nao robots feature in an experiment in which Professor Alan Winfield,part of a British Standards Institute working group on robot ethics, asks: “Can we teach a robot to be good? But when the research goes public and outgrows this hangar-sized lab, each robot will inevitably be reshaped depending on who acquires it. An apology. I thought this article would be a bit of fun, honestly. A romp through the kinky silliness that’ll be marketed at our grown grandchildren, their poor glazed eyes consensually replaced with tiny computers. A funny toy, a cheeky app maybe. A widower watching TV with his unseeing doll, more of a carer than a wife. And then I went and spoiled it all by asking questions. Assuming technology doesn’t start rolling backwards, people will be having sex with robots in the next five years. Before RealDolls manages to refine and sell its robots, with their lubricated mouths and their custom eye colours, there are entrepreneurs who are competing right now to market their own versions first. While buyers of Pepper – a robot engineered to be emotionally responsive to humans – have signed user contracts promising they won’t use it for “acts for the purpose of sexual or indecent behaviour”, sex doll company True Companion is developing a robot that will be “always turned on and ready to play”. Roxxxy is due to go on sale later this year – in May they’d had 4,000 pre-orders at £635 each. “She doesn’t vacuum or cook,” says Douglas Hines, Roxxxy’s creator, “but she does almost everything else.” When I heard about Richardson’s Campaign Against Sex Robots, I sniggered. It conjures up every Giles Coren-esque description of the most furious feminist imaginable, charging into the future with a mallet and a frown. Richardson admits it’s not… unfunny. But then she shrugs. What else is she going to call it? Richardson and Levy stand on opposite sides of a busy road, watching technology speed past towards a clouded horizon. If the future of sex (as all arrows seem to point) is in robotics, then Richardson is right: it requires a thoughtful discussion about the ethics of gender and sex. But while she identifies the relationships that appear to be emerging as modelled on sex work – the robot as passive, bought, female; the man as emotion-free and sex-starved – surely rather than calling for a ban on them, to forlornly try stalling technology, the pressure should be to change the narrative. To use this new market to explore the questions we have about sex, about intimacy, about gender. I agree with Kathleen Richardson on many things, especially that robots should not be the prescription for those who struggle with the otherness of people (something she said in the context of relationships with robots – that humans become human through interacting with other humans – I’ve thought about most days since we met). But until the internet becomes the Nether, until it becomes so immersive that our grasp on reality becomes slippery, I think it’s a mistake to fear it, and to fear them. Because this is what we know: the sexbots are coming.
News Article | August 25, 2015
With an estimated 11.4 million amputees worldwide, a Bristol-based 3D printing company, Open Bionics, says that it can scan an amputee and build (or rather, print) a custom-fitted prosthetic forearm and hand in less than two days. That's super fast, given that current prosthetic models on the market take weeks or even months to develop. Founder Joel Gibbard's company also just won the James Dyson Award, recognizing young and talented engineers in the UK, and plans to start selling his prosthetics by next year. The prize money included a £2,220 ($3,485 USD) reward and a chance to compete for an international title worth £28,600 ($45,000 USD). For Gibbard, it's all about cost-effectiveness and speed of production. A focus on both is what he feels will give his product a competitive advantage. "We have a device at the lower-end of the pricing scale and upper end of functionality," he tells BBC. "At the same time it is very lightweight and it can be customized for each person." The 25-year-old inventor describes the hand as a skeleton with a customizable skin on top of it. Other prosthetic hands with finger mobility usually run up to about £20,000 ($31,394 USD) and £60,000 ($94,181 USD), but Gibbard is looking to charge customers only £2,000 ($3,140 USD), including the cost of fitting. This is also good news for families with children who might need the device but can't afford the exorbitant cost, as they'd otherwise have to constantly buy new prosthetics for their growing bodies. So, how does this device work, and why is it so cheap in comparison to its potential competitors? For starters, the Open Bionics prosthetic device was birthed out of an Indiegogo crowdfunding project supported by Bristol Robotics Laboratory in 2013 as an open source initiative for making accessible and affordable robot prosthetic hands for amputees. It raised £43,593 ($68,428 USD) in a month's time with the support of over 1,000 funders. The hand itself utilizes myoelectric signals to detect muscle movements via sensors attached to the owner's skin. It uses these to control their grip. The device detects the flexing of muscles on the forearm to open and close the grip of the hand, with a double flex to form a pinch grip. The technology isn't advanced enough yet for the owners to sense and feel what they're touching, but the sensors do detect the pressure exerted to interact with an object. What this means is that the owner can hold and use fragile objects like eggs without breaking them. Naturally, however, because of the decreased costs, there is also a compromise on design and engineering. "We are testing [the device] with users and household objects and trying to come to a compromise that means it is very affordable and still has enough power to do most of the stuff that people want," Gibbard says. The design for the device has been revised over 10 times, and the number of moving parts has been removed significantly. This is part of the reason why they're quick and easy to put together — a user can be sized up in a matter of minutes, and then, all the necessary parts can be 3D-printed within 40 hours. Although the current design can only help amputees with limb loss to their forearms, Gibbard and his team's ultimate goal is to provide inexpensive prosthetics to amputees with other needs as well. This, however, is still a ways down the road.
News Article | December 11, 2015
The scientific paper, 'Self-sufficient Wireless Transmitter Powered by Foot-pumped Urine Operating Wearable MFC' is published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. The paper describes a lab-based experiment led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). The Bristol BioEnergy Centre is based in Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol. Soft MFCs embedded within a pair of socks was supplied with fresh urine, circulated by the human operator walking. Normally, continuous-flow MFCs would rely on a mains powered pump to circulate the urine over the microbial fuel cells, but this experiment relied solely on human activity. The manual pump was based on a simple fish circulatory system and the action of walking caused the urine to pass over the MFCs and generate energy. Soft tubes, placed under the heels, ensured frequent fluid push–pull by walking. The wearable MFC system successfully ran a wireless transmission board, which was able to send a message every two minutes to the PC-controlled receiver module. Professor Ieropoulos says, "Having already powered a mobile phone with MFCs using urine as fuel, we wanted to see if we could replicate this success in wearable technology. We also wanted the system to be entirely self-sufficient, running only on human power – using urine as fuel and the action of the foot as the pump." "This work opens up possibilities of using waste for powering portable and wearable electronics. For example, recent research shows it should be possible to develop a system based on wearable MFC technology to transmit a person's coordinates in an emergency situation. At the same time this would indicate proof of life since the device will only work if the operator's urine fuels the MFCs." Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) use bacteria to generate electricity from waste fluids. They tap into the biochemical energy used for microbial growth and convert it directly into electricity. This technology can use any form of organic waste and turn it into useful energy without relying on fossil fuels, making this a valuable green technology. The Centre has recently launched a prototype urinal in partnership with Oxfam that uses pee-power technology to light cubicles in refugee camps. Explore further: Urine could be the answer to cheaper electricity More information: M Taghavi et al. Self sufficient wireless transmitter powered by foot-pumped urine operating wearable MFC, Bioinspiration & Biomimetics (2015). DOI: 10.1088/1748-3190/11/1/016001
News Article | November 13, 2015
Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to researchers who work tirelessly to further technology not simply for profit or fame, but to better the world around them. This is especially true when their inventions are as impressive as the Row-bot. The tiny robot pictured at the top of this page isn’t some cute little children’s toy parents will need to fight their way through crowds to purchase this coming holiday season. It’s a scientific breakthrough that could have a dramatic impact on the environment. MUST SEE: Every single major Black Friday 2015 ad we’ve seen so far First presented last month at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Hamburg, Germany, the Row-bot is a essentially a fuel cell powered by electricity that is generated solely by bacteria living inside the device. The beauty of this particular bacteria-powered fuel cell, however, is the means by which the tiny organisms living in its gut generate that electricity. The Row-bot has four tiny buoyant stabilizers for feet and two paddles that extend from the middle of its body. While the feet keep Row-bot afloat, the paddles send it skimming across the surface of a body of water. The device takes water into a cavity in its housing as it moves, where electrogenic bacteria digest pollutants found within the water. The byproducts of that digestion are carbon dioxide and electricity, which in turn fuels the Row-bot and keeps it moving. Row-bot is the brainchild of a team of researchers from the University of Bristol, Bristol BioEnergy Centre and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, all located in Bristol, England. “We present a design for an energetically autonomous artificial organism, combining two subsystems; a bioinspired energy source and bio-inspired actuation,” the researchers wrote in a paper covering their work on Row-bot. “The work is the first demonstration of energetically autonomy in a microbial fuel cell (MFC)-powered, swimming robot taking energy from it’s surrounding, aqueous environment. In contrast to previous work using stacked MFC power sources, the Row-bot employs a single microbial fuel cell as an artificial stomach and uses commercially available voltage step-up hardware to produce usable voltages.” The team continued, “The energy generated exceeds the energy requirement to complete the mechanical actuation needed to refuel. Energy production and actuation are demonstrated separately with the results showing that the combination of these subsystems will produce closed-loop energetic autonomy. The work shows a crucial step in the development of autonomous robots capable of long term self-power.” Imagine that: A self-driving, self-powered robot fueled by waste that pollutes the Earth. Harvard researchers create insect-sized robot that can both fly and swim Robot swarms will explore the waterways of Venice 'Bionic model' will strut down New York Fashion Week runway with prosthetic arm More from BGR: Best Buy’s full Black Friday 2015 ad posted: Huge TVs, iPhone 6s, consoles and more This article was originally published on BGR.com
News Article | July 17, 2013
Talk about recycling — scientists at a British university have come up with a way to charge mobile phones with that most ubiquitous of by-products, human urine. Yes, it’s pee power. The team from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, part of the University of the West of England (UWE), has been working for quite some time on their version of the microbial fuel cell (MFC) – a concept that goes back a century, but that has never quite become commercially viable. MFCs use bacteria to break down organic material and create power. The bacteria need the right “food” to generate a usable amount of electricity, and the UWE team reckons human urine ticks the right boxes. To quote team leader Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos from a few years back, when the researchers were experimenting with creating stacks of these MFCs: “Urine is chemically very active, rich in nitrogen and has compounds such as urea, chloride, potassium and bilirubin, which make it very good for the microbial fuel cells.” Fast forward to this week, and the team is talking major progress. MFCs don’t output much power and, until now, the researchers had only managed to accumulate very small amounts of power into capacitors for storage. Now they’ve successfully charged a Samsung handset enough to get some real – albeit limited – usage. “So far the microbial fuel power stack that we have developed generates enough power to enable SMS messaging, web browsing and to make a brief phone call. Making a call on a mobile phone takes up the most energy but we will get to the place where we can charge a battery for longer periods. The concept has been tested and it works – it’s now for us to develop and refine the process so that we can develop MFCs to fully charge a battery.” It sounds like a real breakthrough, particularly for environments such as rural areas in emerging markets, where power sources can be hard to come by, and where mobile phones are proving for many to be a bridge into the modern era. Indeed, some funding for this work has come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The team also sees potential for powering lighting, razors and other such devices. It should be noted that this isn’t the only way of harvesting power from pee. The other uses electrolysis in order to generate hydrogen fuel, but that comes with a couple of significant problems: firstly, hydrogen is explosive; and secondly, it takes a fair amount of power to split out the hydrogen molecules in the first place. The advantage of MFCs is that they are, urine input aside, relatively self-sustaining.
News Article | March 23, 2014
From solar-powered electronic toilets to a prototype that helps recharge mobile phones from urine, and another one that could potentially offer advertising slots while pooping among several revenue generating opportunities, the ideas showcased at “Reinvent the toilet fair” in New Delhi were not short on lofty ambitions: in fact some of them can be best described as “the moonshots for solving the global sanitation crisis”. Indeed, as the World Banks estimates, the annual global cost of poor sanitation is around $260 billion, of which India accounts for nearly $54 billion. Add to that some 2.5 billion people in the world who have no access to modern sanitation, toilets, and the problem is clearly in need of some moonshots. The cost of poor sanitation is not just money, but precious lives too if you consider that over 1.5 million kids die every year because of diarrhea — a disease originating from un-sanitised toilets. On Saturday, India’s Biotechnology Industry Research Assiatance Council (BIRAC) alongwith the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, picked six teams of researchers from the country to receive grants worth $2 million in total, and help solve the global sanitation crisis through innovative toilet solutions. Here are some of the ideas joining the list of 16 organization already part of the toilet challenge announced by the Gates Foundation in 2011: Among ideas demonstrated at the toilet tech fair, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory demoed a pilot that generates electricity from urine to power up a mobile phone. Another idea came from the University of Colorado Boulder, which has developed a prototype, which uses solar energy to transform both fecal material and urine into disinfected, commercially viable end products, the foundation said. Since 2011, when the toilet challenge was launched by the foundation, some 16 teams have won grants to develop the next-gen toilets. These include a toilet system that uses microwave to convert human waste into electricity and a solar-powered toilet that separates liquids from solids and converts them into biochar. For Bill Gates, the richest man on this planet, reinventing toilets is nothing short of eradicating Polio in terms of scale and complexity of the challenge. Gates has always believed in using technology to tackle the world’s biggest and most complex of challenges (mostly basic needs) without getting into “connecting the next billion” kind of goals. In fact, as he mentioned here in this Businessweek interview, there are more important problems to be solved than working on providing the Internet access to all, especially for low-income population. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” Gates had said in the Businessweek interview. Use of technology to solve real world problems in the developing world is nothing new. Several attempts have been made to tackle the challenges of education, computer literacy and speedy Internet access. Developing the next-generation toilets may not be as fancy as the One Laptop Per Child mission for instance, but it does address a very basic and long-ignored problem that’s now become too massive to be solved by just one government. As this AP story noted, India has more than 640 million people defecating in the open and producing a stunning 72,000 tons of human waste each day. To be sure, identifying innovative ideas and technologies that help the world reinvent toilets is not the biggest challenge for Gates and his team — it’s going to be more about providing affordable and sustainable solutions that do not have to depend on annual grants and beg users to embrace them. For its part, the Gates Foundation is betting on solutions that cost less than 5 cents per user per day and are aspirational in terms of design and ease-of-use, not just for the developing world, but also the developed nations.
News Article | March 16, 2016
A new kind of fuel cell that can turn urine into electricity could revolutionize the way we produce bioenergy, particularly in developing countries. The research, published in Electrochimica Acta, describes a new design of microbial fuel cell that's smaller, cheaper and more powerful than traditional ones. The world's supply of fossil fuels is being depleted, and there is increasing pressure to develop new renewable sources of energy. Bioenergy is one such source, and microbial fuel cells can produce it. In their study, researchers from University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory describe a new design of microbial fuel cell that overcomes two limitations of standard microbial fuel cells: their cost and low power production. "Microbial fuel cells have real potential to produce renewable bioenergy out of waste matter like urine," said Mirella Di Lorenzo, corresponding author of the study from the University of Bath who holds a doctorate in Industrial Biotechnology. "The world produces huge volumes of urine and if we can harness the potential power of that waste using microbial fuel cells, we could revolutionize the way we make electricity." Microbial fuel cells are devices that use the natural processes of certain bacteria to turn organic matter into electricity. There are other ways of producing bioenergy, including anaerobic digestion, fermentation and gasification. But microbial fuel cells have the advantage of working at room temperature and pressure. They're efficient, relatively cheap to run and produce less waste than the other methods. There are, however, some limitations. Microbial fuel cells can be quite expensive to manufacture. The electrodes are usually made of cost-effective materials, but the cathode often contains platinum to speed up the reactions that create the electricity. Also, microbial fuel cells tend to produce less power than the other methods of bioenergy production. The new miniature microbial fuel cell uses no expensive materials for the cathode; instead it's made of carbon cloth and titanium wire. To speed up the reaction and create more power, it uses a catalyst that's made of glucose and ovalbumin, a protein found in egg white. These are typical constituents of food waste. "We aim to test and prove the use of carbon catalysts derived from various food wastes as a renewable and low-cost alternative to platinum at the cathode," said corresponding author Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo from the University of Bath. They then tweaked the design to see what would produce more power. Doubling the length of the electrodes, from 4mm to 8mm, increased the power output tenfold. By stacking up three of the miniature microbial fuel cells, the researchers were able to increase the power tenfold compared to the output of individual cells. "Microbial fuel cells could be a great source of energy in developing countries, particularly in impoverished and rural areas," said Jon Chouler, lead author of the study from the University of Bath. "Our new design is cheaper and more powerful than traditional models. Devices like this that can produce electricity from urine could make a real difference by producing sustainable energy from waste." "We have shown that the cell design has an incidence on performance and we want to further investigate the relevance of electrode surface area to volume ratio on performance. Our aim is to be able to effectively miniaturize the MFC and scale-up power production by generating compact batteries of multiple miniature units," added Dr. Di Lorenzo.
News Article | November 23, 2015
Polluted water can at times make swimming in the sea or a pool risky, on the other hand aquatic organisms such as water boatman need the nutrients in dirty water to feed on. Taking inspiration from water beetles and other swimming insects, academics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) have developed the Row-bot, a robot that thrives in dirty water. The Row-bot mimics the way that the water boatman moves and the way that it feeds on rich organic matter in the dirty water it swims in. The Row-bot project aims to develop an autonomous swimming robot able to operate indefinitely in remote unstructured locations by scavenging its energy from the environment. When it is hungry the Row-bot opens its soft robotic mouth and rows forward to fill its microbial fuel cell (MFC) stomach with nutrient-rich dirty water. It then closes its mouth and slowly digests the nutrients. The MFC stomach uses the bio-degradation of organic matter to generate electricity using bio-inspired mechanisms. When it has recharged its electrical energy stores the Row-bot rows off to a new location, ready for another gulp of dirty water. Jonathan Rossiter, Professor of Robotics at the University of Bristol and BRL, said: "The work shows a crucial step in the development of autonomous robots capable of long-term self-power. Most robots require re-charging or refuelling, often requiring human involvement." Hemma Philamore, PhD student, added: "We anticipate that the Row-bot will be used in environmental clean-up operations of contaminants, such as oil spills and harmful algal bloom, and in long term autonomous environmental monitoring of hazardous environments, for example those hit by natural and man-made disasters." The prototype robot combines two subsystems; a bioinspired energy source and bio-inspired actuation. The first subsystem shows the power generation capability of the robot. A second duplicate system starts the refuelling process and moves the robot with an energy requirement that is less than the energy generated by the first system. This is achieved by feeding on chemical energy contained in its surrounding fluid to support microbial metabolism inside the MFC. Mimicking the water boatman's feeding mechanism, which employs a broad beaklike mouth to sweep in both fluid and suspended particulate matter, the Row-bot feeds its MFC stomach by opening and closing the mouth-like orifice at each end of the MFC through the bending of a flexible acetate envelope structure. By using both these systems the robot can be totally independent in water providing enough energy is available in the fluid. The Row-bot was developed at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaboration between the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol, by PhD student, Hemma Philamore and her PhD supervisors; Professor Jonathan Rossiter from the University of Bristol's Department of Engineering Mathematics and Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos from the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of the West of England. Explore further: Self-sustaining robot has an artificial gut (w/ Video) More information: 'Row-bot: An energetically autonomous artificial water boatman' by Hemma Philamore, Jonathan Rossiter, Andrew Stinchcombe, and Ioannis Ieropoulos in 2015 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) Congress.
News Article | February 1, 2016
The 'Flourish' project announced today is co-funded by Innovate UK and involves partners from across the South West who will work together to develop a CAV that integrates the mobility needs of older adults with a secure and connected infrastructure. The development has the potential to revolutionise mobility for older adults, reducing loneliness and giving people who do not drive the freedom to make spontaneous choices without relying on others. The work also promises to lead to thousands of new jobs in the South West, in supply chain and product development. Associate Professor Praminda Caleb-Solly from Bristol Robotics Laboratory explains, "Ageing brings a host of physical and cognitive impairments, together with long-term conditions, resulting in the need for added support. Maintaining health and independence, and participating as active members of society, requires people to be mobile. "Studies show that cessation of driving can lead to reduced social activity, poor health and depression. In the UK, over one million older adults say they always, or often, feel lonely. This research would mean that people in this situation wouldn't have to depend on others for transportation and would have the ability to make spontaneous choices. "UWE researchers with expertise in applied psychology and human factors, assistive technology and understanding people's transport requirements, will work with older adults with a range of needs and expectations. "This will result in the development of a set of key scenarios considering people's travel needs and barriers and constraints related to the participants' accessibility needs. Our research findings will further support inclusive public service design and policymaking." The team will also contribute to the design and development (through ongoing human factors testing) of adaptable Human-Machine interfaces (HMIs) which are responsive to people's different accessibility needs. Target-user groups will have a complex range of co-morbidities which can result in impaired vision, loss of hearing, painful or restricted mobility, poor movement control and issues with balance and difficulties with speech, memory and attention, including occasional confusion. Enabling these user groups to communicate intuitively, confidently and safely with an autonomous vehicle requires sophisticated multi-modal interaction capability, and intelligent sensing and responsiveness, which mainstream autonomous vehicles won't necessarily support. The research will address these challenges by building on the teams' world class experience of human factors, assistive technology design and psychology. Associate Professor Caleb-Solly continues, "We will develop a driving simulator that will be integrated into a pod shell and trialled with end-users as part of an iterative design process. This will enable us to optimise the designs of the vehicle interfaces to make them intuitive and easy to use, providing useful journey information and enhancing the journey experience." The findings from working on the simulator development and testing will be transferred to designing the actual physical interfaces which will be integrated into a real pod. A series of physical trials in a range of contexts to test usability and integration with other information sources will then be conducted. Real-world trials with older adults will also assess user experience and user interaction with the human-machine interfaces, focussing on subjective, performance and physiological response measures. Experience of running the trials will enable the development of a standard assessment framework to determine HMI and vehicle adaptations needed for different types of disability needs. This will give car manufacturers incorporating this technology a competitive edge in the market, attracting a wider range of customers and increasing market penetration. The UWE contribution to FLOURISH continues 'the pathway to Driverless Cars' (Department for Transport Feb 2015) building on the platform provided by the VENTURER project and moving closer to the realisation of connected autonomous vehicles(CAVs) sharing roads with current manually driven vehicles and other road users. In FLOURISH, co-designing with people with some level of cognitive and physical age-related impairments, the resulting simulator test environment and adaptable user interface for CAV operation will also be suitable for others with special needs as well as the wider public. As part of their research on assistive robotics for independent living, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) at UWE collaborate closely with Designability, who have expertise in developing assistive technologies for older adults, and working with researchers in applied psychology and human factors, will extend their expertise in this area. Professor Tony Pipe from BRL who will research the security systems used to drive the vehicle. Professor Pipe said, "Security of the systems driving the vehicles is absolutely essential. We don't want the cars to be hacked. Systems anticipate total connectivity to real time traffic conditions so that routes can be controlled and monitored." Associate Professor Praminda Caleb-Solly from BRL will contribute to the design of the adaptable Human-Machine Interfaces and evaluation studies, investigating innovate ways for visualising data from multiple sources to provide contextually relevant and engaging information to the person in the vehicle, through a range of modalities. Professor Graham Parkhurst and Dr Ian Shergold from UWE Bristol's Centre for Transport and Society will contribute their expertise on older citizens' mobility needs and the importance of being mobile both for practical reasons but also due to the wellbeing benefits of being socially connected through movement. Professor Parkhurst said, "It is important that the products developed by Flourish work effectively alongside the existing services for supporting older citizen's travel. The CTS input will focus on ensuring that successful integration." Professor Chris Alford and Dr Phil Morgan from UWE Bristol Department of Psychology will be leading the applied psychology and human factors aspects of the project. Professor Chris Alford adds: "We will be looking at human factors aspects by devising an adaptive human-machine interface connected to various in-car systems using simulated tests that emulate journeys so that we can be sure that people feel confident and comfortable. For example this might include making the instruments like speedometers larger so that people with visual impairments can view speeds easily." Dr Phil Morgan adds: "AVs are the future of driving and are already developing at a galloping pace. Through FLOURISH, we have the perfect opportunity to influence the design of interfaces that people will interact with when using AVs and CAVs. We will optimise the design and usability of these interfaces through psychology and human factors testing and multiple rounds of user-trials so that design is informed by, for example, human needs, expectations, and cognitive ability. We recognise that it is not simply the case of designing a one-size-fits-all interface, especially as the sample we will be designing for during this project are likely to have varying requirements. For example, whereas one person may benefit from larger and less crowded displays, another may benefit more from more audible information. Bespoke solutions are crucial and cutting-edge CAV interfaces for use by older adults should be adaptable based upon individual requirements. We also need to get the balance of interface information right, such that people have access to enough information (e.g., vehicle related, external conditions related) without feeling over-loaded or indeed under-loaded. The FLOURISH project and partnership will allow us to achieve all of this and more." Explore further: Could robots help older people look after themselves