This robotic rover powered by balls of algae generates energy through photosynthesis

MARS is a photosynthesis-powered autonomous rover that uses the photosynthesis process of marimo to accumulate solar energy and travel across river and lake beds and gather scientific information.

Rovers gather some of the most relevant and fundamental scientific information about harsh environments. Unlike humans, rovers can access hard-to-reach environments, even in the most dangerous and unlivable conditions. Whether traversing the rocky landscape of Mars or leading scientists into the dark depths of the sea, rovers bring us closer to understanding our planet and all that surrounds it.

Developer: The University of the West of England

Today, a team of scientists from the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, UK, established the use of a marimo, a type of rare algae that lives in lakes and rivers that develop into big, velvety balls, in water rovers to discover information about some of the water masses on our planet. Recently published in the Journal of Biological Engineering, the “Marimo Actuated Rover Systems,” or MARS for short, is described as “an inexpensive, lightweight, compact, photosynthesis-powered autonomous rover.”

Found just below the surface of the lake or river, the marimo thrives on the energy harnessed by weak sunlight that skims the surface of the water and produces oxygen in the process. Equipped with a highly engineered globular rover suit, MARS rovers use solar power to autonomously traverse riverbeds and lake bottoms, gathering information on water conditions like temperature and oxygen.

The UWE team produced a baseball-sized 3D-printed exoskeleton to enclose marimo balls and expand their rover suit. Using this exoskeleton, oxygen generated by solar energy is trapped inside and allows MARS to zigzag and propel itself forward across the bottom of the river or lake. The UWE team has discovered a way to harness the energy produced during photosynthesis and turn it into a type of fuel that drives MARS forward. The more oxygen trapped inside the exoskeleton, the heavier MARS becomes. This aspect of photosynthesis allows the autonomous rover to avoid larger obstacles in its path by exhaling oxygen to become buoyant, then latching on to oxygen to continue moving.

Currently, in its early stages, the rover can potentially be fitted with low-power sensors that will track water conditions such as pH, pollution, turbidity and salinity levels. These low-powered sensors can even be activated by the energy harnessed by the rover’s motion. While the marimo is unique to lakes and rivers, UWE researchers find that the MARS model can be applied to ocean algae, like seaweed, allowing rovers to roam the mysterious depths of the ocean.

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