This Tiny Robo-Beetle Is Powered by Booze

Screw batteries and charging cables—2020 has been such a rough year that even the robots are turning to drink.


This beetle-inspired microbot is fueled by methanol, the kind of alcohol you’d find in antifreeze as opposed to a barrel, according to researchers with the University of Southern California’s engineering department in a Science Robotics report this week Dubbed the RoBeetle, this little dude weighs just 88 milligrams, can carry up to 2.6 times its own weight, and can skitter about on its own for up to two hours, even across different surfaces and inclines.

That’s thanks to its itty bitty, artificial muscles that propel the robot using a system of nickel-titanium alloy wires covered in a platinum powder, which catalyzes the combustion of methanol vapor into heat. The ensuing cycle of heating and cooling causes the wire to contract and extend in turn, mimicking real muscles, Xiufeng Yang and his colleagues Longlong Chang and Néstor Pérez-Arancibia explained in the report.

Researchers hope to one day employ these kinds of insect-sized autonomous robots for a variety of purposes, from using them as artificial pollinators to deploying them in disaster relief efforts or even complicated medical procedures. But a host of technical challenges still keep that a subject of science fiction for now.

For one, RoBeetle won’t be winning any races any time soon. The little bot moves about 0.05 body lengths per second, which as you can see in the above video is pretty darn slow. In the report, Yang and co. said that using another fuel source, such as propane, for example, might give it a bit of a speed boost, but that remains to be studied. Researchers are also trying to figure out how to equip RoBeetle with a fuel tank that’ll keep it powered over longer periods without sacrificing its small size, as well as how to program it to communicate with the team.

As much as I realize the scientific and humanitarian benefits of robobugs, I just...can’t seem to keep from shuddering at the thought of more of these mechanical creepy crawlers, especially if they’re faster than RoBeetle’s unthreatening little scoot. Just please, for the love of God nobody make any robo-murder hornets, that’s all I ask.

Writes for Gizmodo on evenings and weekends.



PSA. Methanol is not drinking alcohol. (so not booze)