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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.

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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.

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President-elect Joe Biden should anticipate major and minor conflicts in space from even the earliest days of his presidency.

The big picture: President Donald Trump's military and civil space policies are well-documented, but Biden's record and views on space are less clear.

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