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ARPA-E Giving Millions for Energy-Slashing Robots, Shape-Shifting Clothes

There may soon be autonomous robotic air-conditioning robots following you to ensure your comfort — and to cut your energy costs.

The idea, called the Roving Personal Comforter (RoCo), is one of many that comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)’s Delta program, which seeks creative ways to solve inefficiencies in the heating and cooling of our homes, buildings, and personal spaces.

“It’s really almost a little bit ridiculous when you think about it: We heat and cool an entire building for the personal comfort of a small number of people who occupy not very much space in that building,” explains Dr. Ellen Williams, the director of ARPA-E, speaking about the impetus for the Delta program after her keynote at MakerCon. “One of our projects is to look at whether we can do personal thermal management for people in a building, to avoid having to heat and cool the entire building.”


ARPA-E launched in 2007 with the goal of creating revolutionary solutions to energy issues through programs like Delta, which aids research at various facilities by providing sizable grants; Delta participants have received $1.8 million to $3 million each to help find ways to reduce energy use nationally by 2%.

Along with RoCo, being researched through the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Energy Engineering, other Delta projects include automated venting systems that direct themselves toward building occupants, underway at the State University of New York (SUNY), and “Passive Thermo-Adaptive Textiles with Laminated Polymer Bimorphs” — clothing that changes shape depending on the temperature — pursued by Saul Griffith’s Otherlab in San Francisco.

“We’ve got about 16 different projects and we’re just kicking off activities, so we expect in the next year we’ll see a lot of great things happening,” Williams explains.


ARPA-E is pursuing other initiatives as well — the Focus program seeks ways to maximize solar power generation with hybrid heat/photovoltaic systems, as well as using more efficient solar trackers such as the pneumatic bellows systems from Sunfolding (another Otherlab endeavor).

Meanwhile, the Litecar challenge, a collaboration with LocalMotors, has over 250 entries for ways to create a lightweight, safe car.


Makers who want to learn more and find ways to participate in ARPA-E programs, or who want to see the showcase of participants from these challenges, should put the upcoming Summit on their calendars — February 29 to March 2 in Washington D.C.


Mike Senese is the Executive Editor of Make: magazine. He is also a TV host, starring in various engineering and science shows for Discovery Channel, including Punkin Chunkin, How Stuff Works, and Catch It Keep It.

An avid maker, Mike spends his spare time tinkering with electronics, doing amateur woodworking, and attempting to cook the perfect pizza.

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