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Navy researchers investigate small-scale autonomous planetary explorers
Date:1/3/2012

WASHINGTON Robotic exploration to remote regions, to include distant planetary bodies, is often limited by energy requirements to perform, in repetition, even the simplest tasks. With this in mind, researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are looking into a novel approach that could some day aid scientific space and planetary research without the need for power-intense options often used today.

Integrating the NRL developed technologies in microrobotics, microbial fuel cells, and low power electronics, space robotics scientist Dr. Gregory P. Scott at NRL's Spacecraft Engineering Department inspires a novel autonomous microrover, weighing in at nearly one-kilogram and powered by an advanced microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology.

"The goal is to demonstrate a more efficient and reliable energy source for use in powering small robotic vehicles in environments where the option for human intervention is non-existent," said Scott. "Microbial fuel cells coupled with extremely low-power electronics and a low energy requirement for mobility addresses gaps in power technology applicable to all robotic systems, especially planetary robotics."

The MFC was selected because of its long-term durability owing to the ability of microorganisms to reproduce and the bacterium's high energy density compared with traditional lithium-ion power sources. This research explores in more detail the use of microbes as a power source and moves to eliminate the existing bulk associated with MFC infrastructure, such as large, power intensive pump systems and MFC mass and volume requirements.

A portion of the energy generated by the MFC will be used to maintain onboard electronics and control systems with the remaining energy directed toward slowly charging a battery or capacitor until a sufficient amount of electricity is collected. Once sufficient power is stored, the system can then discharge this
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Contact: Daniel Parry
daniel.parry@nrl.navy.mil
202-767-2541
Naval Research Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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