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Here go RoBeetle. Credit: Xiufeng Yang et al./USC

A tiny, lightweight beetle-inspired robot fueled by alcohol can crawl on its own for up to two hours.

Why it matters: Researchers have long dreamed of creating tiny autonomous robots that could explore small spaces to inspect infrastructure, assist in disaster relief or drop pollen on flowers. But bringing the required power and control to insect-sized robots has been challenging.

How it works: The RoBeetle's artificial muscle is powered by methanol instead of batteries, freeing it from tethered power sources.

  • The wee robot's muscle is a nickel-titanium alloy wire covered in platinum powder that catalyzes the combustion of methanol vapor into heat, Xiufeng Yang and his colleagues at the University of Southern California report in Science Robotics.
  • The wire contracts from the heat and then extends again after the methanol fuel is gone, mimicking the contraction of biological muscles.
  • RoBeetle could move along different surfaces and carry up to 2.6 times its own body weight.

Yes, but: The robotic beetle is slow, moving about 0.05 body lengths per second.(The video above is sped up.)

  • "Other critical challenges to address include how to refuel chemically powered robots for long-term, continuous operation and how to program or communicate with them for certain tasks," Ryan Truby and Shuguang Li of MIT, who weren't involved in the work, wrote in an accompanying article.

What's next: Yang says a different fuel — for example, propane — might help to speed up the robot. Ultimately, he says, they hope to increase the actuation frequency to generate enough actuation frequency to create a robotic butterfly.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with more details about how the force would be generated to create a robotic butterfly.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Oct 21, 2020 - Technology

Why we confide in robots

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

New forms of "empathetic computing" are helping human users feel more comfortable in opening up to a program.

Why it matters: Our mental health has taken a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, while social distancing means it's harder to meet in person with therapists. That has opened a space for emotionally attuned machines to help us.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.

Del Rio bridge camp empty following Haitian migrant surge

A boy bathes himself in a jug of water inside a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 21 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The last migrants camping under the Del Rio International Bridge, which connects Texas and Mexico, departed on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced during a White House press briefing.

Driving the news: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, had arrived to the makeshift camp after crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Roughly 1,800 migrants will now head to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers.