The topic of rotting corpses is not that popular. But it has been on the mind of the United States military for decades. Battlefield casualties left unattended pose a dangerous health hazard and lower public morale.
Their solution: build a robot that can power itself by consuming organic material found in its environment. It is called by an apt acronym: EATR (Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot) and has been in development since 2003.
DARPA provided the funding for this joint project shared by Cyclone Power Technologies and Robotic Technology, Inc. Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO, released this astonishing statement:
“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission.”
Schoell put to rest any notion that these machines feast on human flesh:
“We are focused on demonstrating that our engines can create usable, green power from plentiful, renewable plant matter. The commercial applications alone for this earth-friendly energy solution are enormous.”
So what does EATR eat?
“…fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings, and wood chips — small, plant-based items.”
Robert Finkelstein of Robotic Technology said EATR’s cameras and radar-like sensors would provide data to software that matches known food types to its knowledge database:
“It won’t consume a chocolate layer cake, because it won’t recognize it as food,” Finkelstein assured. “And it certainly won’t go running after animals.”
The strictly vegetarian EATR was designed to carry out remote operations at long range that also require extreme endurance. These robots function as sherpas, carrying a troop’s packs and gear, or to deliver material support.
The self-sustaining robot is also equipped to perform reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and casualty extractions.
In April 2009, RTI said that about 150 pounds of biofuel vegetation could power the vehicle for 100 miles.
Phase 2 of this project calls for EATR to “learn” how to identify edible food sources – those that can be converted to fuel – and then consume them.
This robot will be able to locate and ingest biochemical plant-based energy sources – in plain English; it will learn how to feed itself.
The project’s final Phase 3 will identify the military and civil applications that could benefit from a self-sustaining robot that can live off the land – and places where such a system could be deployed successfully.
“EATR will grab plants with its robotic arm, chop them with a mini chainsaw, and burn them in its onboard steam combustion engine to make power,” reported Popular Science.
Robots are handy in situations and locales that are dangerous or lethal for humans – radioactive or deep-sea sites, for example.
We’ve come a long way from how societies traditionally disposed of their mass casualties, that’s for sure. Military extraction operations after combat aren’t that different from cleaning up after an outbreak of plague or other pandemic diseases.
The great and devastating plagues of the Middle Ages in Europe wiped out millions of people and sliced populations in half. The Black Death alone, an outbreak of bubonic plague, rampaged through Europe in the late 1340s, claiming some 25 million victims. It is estimated that this pestilence killed 200 million people worldwide. Some cities counted 1,000 deaths a day.
That’s a lot of corpses to have to deal with. Specialists called body collectors arose in response to the mounting problem of rotting human flesh attracting vermin and more disease.
Dead bodies were identified by their horrible smell, recorded Boccaccio:
“The departure was hardly observed by their neighbors until the stench of their putrefying bodies carried the tidings.”
Quite often, the body collectors had to enter homes to remove plague corpses. They also cleared bodies piled in the street.
Plague victims had “certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg,” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, who watched the Black Plague unfold in Florence, Italy. Black spots began to spread over the body of the person infected with bubonic plague after the swollen buboes appeared.
“Many died daily or nightly in the public streets,” he observed. The virulent and deadly disease could be spread simply by touching the belongings of a plague victim.
Due to the extreme occupational hazard that came with the job of corpse retrieval and disposal, body collectors were very well paid.
The body collectors piled dead bodies onto rolling carts – as portrayed in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Mass graves layered body and dirt very much like a lasagna made of layered pasta and tomato paste.
How did body collectors survive the risks of their vital trade? You could say they woke up and smelled the flowers.
The occupational group followed the lead of the doctors of their day and adopted their signature uniform: a black garment that covered them from head to toe, black shoes, a black hat, and a rather grotesque bird mask designed to filter noxious odors.
In those days, the medical community thought that “miasma” (foul smells) caused maladies such as the plague. They figured that filling the mask’s beak with medicinal flowers and herbs could protect them from illness.
Body collectors of yore would stand amazed if faced with a modern military autonomous robot brandishing a chainsaw. Frankly, so do we. Let’s hope EATR doesn’t learn to like animal flesh.