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News has emerged of a milestone reached on the road towards a potentially world-changing piece of technology. We speak, of course, of US military plans to introduce roving steam-powered robots which would fuel themselves by harvesting everything alive and cramming it into their insatiable blazing furnaces.

The scheme is officially referred to as Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR™) by those behind it. It will come as no surprise to Reg readers that the funding is from DARPA, the famous Pentagon warboffinry bureau. If you're a hammer, all the problems start to look like nails: if you're DARPA, all the solutions start to look like robots.

The idea of EATR is ostensibly that military reconnaissance droids far behind enemy lines would be able to forage for fuel. Robotic Technology Inc, lead contractor on the EATR, puts it thus:

EATR is an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance military missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling. The patent pending robotic system can find, ingest and extract energy from biomass in the environment, as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, diesel, propane and solar) when suitable.

The machine runs on a "biomass furnace" which powers a steam generator driving a "waste heat engine" from Cyclone Power Technologies. These pieces of kit will now be mated together within 90 days, according to RTI.

The robot steamers are envisaged as being equipped with powerful articulated arms in order to rip trees or bushes out of the earth and stuff them into their glowing maws. By way of a treat, it seems that the machines will also be able to loot or forage more conventional fuel supplies from the petrol tanks of cars, domestic gas cylinders and so on. Cyclone says that their engine can also run happily on old apple cores, banana peel and other kitchen garbage gleaned from bins.

Hapless drivers or householders will be in no position to object to such robotic plundering: military reconnaissance vehicles are typically heavily armed, and doubtless the EATR will be no exception. It might also be fitted with DARPA's SELF tech, enabling it to construct copies of itself and modify its own design.

Even more disturbingly, it seems clear that the EATRs could run on various other kinds of organic matter, for instance bodies. No doubt things would start small, with roving EATRs scooping roadkill, stray cats and such into their fireboxes and reaping fresh energy from their rich, blazing dripping.

From there it would be only a small step to the inevitable harvesting of every living thing on Earth. Trees, crops, garbage, cattle, the very human race itself - all would go to feed the hungry roaring furnaces and drive the clanking, puffing, smoke-belching mechanical locusts onward until the sooty corpse-pall from their engines covered the entire Earth. An Earth which would be home in time to nothing but slowly powering-down EATRs, prowling across endless ashy plains of their own droppings.

There's a more upbeat perspective from RTI here (pdf). ®

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