Scientists have created a robotic beetle that gets through the day on alcohol

Methanol-powered artificial muscles have given an AI Beetle Bot its autonomy. Sometimes, alcohol is the answer.

The functioning insect-alcoholic was designed by its creator to have an artificial micro-muscle system that runs on methanol.

By shunning batteries, scientists were able to construct an insect-sized “RoBeetle” robot that can crawl, climb, and carry loads all on its own for extended periods of time.

The creation was a team effort led by doctors Xiufeng Yang and Perez-Arancibia at the University of Southern California.

The autonomous robot is described by its inventors as an 88-milligram insect-scale autonomous crawling robot driven by a catalytic artificial muscle.

It’s the combination of fuel-powered artificial muscles and an easily controlled mechanical system that give the model complete autonomy – something that scientists have long struggled to create. Up until now truly ‘autonomous’ robots have need external controls and bulky components.

Meanwhile, methanol is a fuel that packs more energy per unit volume than batteries. The key is in the actuation – the mechanism by which control is enacted. The actuator needs a control signal to tell it what to do and a source of energy to do it. In old fashioned terms, a steering wheel tells a car what to do the muscle power of the driver moves the steering column!

Few actuation methods can run on liquid fuel and at this tiny scale, batteries store even less energy than normal.

This is why the vast majority of microrobots driven by battery-powered actuators have to rely on external power sources, such as fiddly cables or electromagnetic fields. These are the only way to power the steering for a sustained period.

The doctors set out to empower these tiny robots with autonomy and explored the idea of using methanol as a power source.

They began by engineering fuel-powered artificial muscles. These are wires made of nickel-titanium alloy covered in platinum powder, which acts as a catalyst for the combustion of methanol vapor.

The resulting heat makes the wire contract. But when the fuel is spent, the wire cools down and extends to its original length – resulting in one cycle of actuation.

Integrating these artificial muscles into a controllable mechanical structure enabled the construction of RoBeetle, an autonomous crawling robot weighing a total of 88 milligrams.

Fuelled by methanol, RoBeetle crawls on its own on both flat ground and inclines. It can deal with a variety of surfaces, ranging in roughness and friction from glass, through a firm foam sleeping pad to polyurethane charcoal foam.
The robot can work outdoors and 2.6 times its own body weight.

In future the RoBeetle will move faster, refuel and communicate with the human operator, according to collaborators Ryan Truby and Shuguang Li.

It’s probably best to talk to the Robeetle before it starts drinking though!