Note: not an accurate rendering of current models

What do you expect from your average robot? To make your tea? Run your home? Defuse a bomb, if you’re in that line of work?

Those involved mainly in the latter kind of thing in the United States want more from their robots – quite literally. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has put a call out for technological brains to design robots offering a hefty 2,000 per cent increase in energy efficiency.

Current models, which do the aforementioned bomb disposal, plus lifting and carrying over difficult terrain, shutting off leaks and other perilous tasks, only last between 10 and 20 minutes. Limiting, especially when dealing with the no-doubt fraught complexities of such matters.

Given who scientists considering entering this challenge are dealing with, it comes as no surprise that the rewards are handsome – anything from $1-5million. But it could be said just reward, because DARPA’s vision is by no means modest:

“Humans and animals have evolved to consume energy very efficiently for movement. Bones, muscles and tendons work together for propulsion using as little energy as possible.

“If robotic actuation can be made to approach the efficiency of human and animal actuation, the range of practical robotic applications will greatly increase and robot design will be less limited by power plant considerations.”

So not much then – just make a robot that’s about as energy efficient as Man.

Of course the area of automation, especially of the military kind, is an uncomfortable issue for many, so it’s fair to say that some of the most ardent supporters of energy efficiency might have issues with getting fully behind this kind of advancement.

When the issue came up a couple of years ago with a contract awarded, also Stateside, to build a battle-ready robot-cum-mobile power generator that can switch between diesel, sun, wind, and battery storage, among others raised the ethical issue, and also suggested that the power needed to make the thing could well negate all the apparent benefits. The embodied energy of any product has got to be at front of large if you’re trying to talk about benefits wider than just making something last a lot longer when it’s in action.

If you want to know more and you’re interested in robots more of the sci-fi, home assistant of the future variety, you can read a fairly complex paper on energy efficiency in humanoid robots. At this stage, we’re not giving out official advice energy-saving on more benign home robotics than have been mainly featured in this blog – we’ll see smart metering gets up and running successfully first.