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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine

By Mark Ward

A colony of robots could soon be patrolling farmers' fields, killing slugs and powering themselves with the corpses of their victims.

Last week, Britain's Department of Trade and Industry gave away 195 million to 233 projects under the Realizing Our Potential Award (ROPA) Scheme. One scheme awarded two years of funding will attempt to create a colony of at least four robots that will hunt for slugs on arable land. Once a robot has captured a full load of slugs it will return to base and dump them into a fermenter. Biogas produced by the rotting corpses will power a generator that will recharge the robots' batteries.

"We are trying to find out if it is possible to build a robot system that needs no human intervention to keep it going," says the project leader, Owen Holland of the Intelligent Autonomous Systems Engineering Laboratory at the University of the West of England in Bristol .

Holland says that one of the challenges of the project is to ensure the robots leave enough time to return to base before they run out of power. They must also patrol the whole of their territory, not just one patch, and not get in each other's way, he says.

The base station is needed because robots would soon become bogged down in soft agricultural soil, says Holland. With a colony of four or more robots, some can be foraging as others recharge.

Holland says slugs were chosen because they are a recognized agricultural pest that is difficult and expensive to eradicate. British farmers spend 10 million each year on slug pellets. And the metaldehyde and methiocarb ingredients in slug pellets build up in the bodies of mammals and birds that prey on slugs, and can eventually kill them. When the natural predators die, slugs can dine on crops with impunity.

Holland says there is little risk that the robots will run out of slugs to fuel their foraging. Recent surveys carried out by one of the advisers to the project--the Long Ashton Research Station in Bristol--found 200 slugs in every square meter of a field of winter wheat.

But the main reason that slugs were chosen was because they do not run away. "Since slugs move slowly, they can be caught without active pursuit," says Holland. Although slugs do have a response against predators, it consists merely of rocking gently from side to side.

The robots have not been designed yet but they will probably hunt by taking snapshots of their territory while on patrol. While patrolling they will take successive snapshots and compare the images. If a slug-sized patch has moved, the robot will home in on the target and capture it.

Holland says all the ROPA projects have an element of risk and the end result of the project will not be a commercial product. "We are not trying to design a finished system," says Holland, "we just want to see if it works." Work on the project begins in October.

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