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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