Unlike other robots which depend on power resources like batteries, this tiny robot beetle called “RoBeetle” uses methanol as a fuel for a micro muscle. It weighs about as much as three grains of rice, can crawl, carry and climb for over an hour without being tethered to a power source.
Methanol as a powerful fuel for Robot Beetle
The new bot, introduced on August 19th 2020 in Science Robotics, carries a liquid fuel, methanol, inside its body. Methanol is a fuel with high specific energy and is the commonly found alcohol in solvents and antifreeze.
Despite being small in size, the tiny robot requires a mighty source of fuel. Liquid fuels like methanol hold more energy per unit volume than batteries, especially on a small scale. Instead of tethering the robot beetle to a power source like a socket, scientists stowed methanol inside the robot’s body, where it powers an artificial minimuscle.
“I realized the critical issue was power,” says Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia. His team at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles turned to methanol because it packs over 10 times the energy as tiny batteries.
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Working of Robot Beetle
To turn methanol into motion, the researchers designed tiny artificial muscles that can contract and relax—just like the real deal. The system uses a coated nickel-titanium alloy wire with platinum. The platinum generates heat by the catalytic combustion of methanol i.e. igniting any methanol vapour that comes in contact with it. By varying the exposure to fuel in a periodic pattern, the temperature of the Robot Beetle varies, and the micro muscle moves accordingly.
The robot beetle weighs only 88 milligrams but can carry up to 2.6 times its weight. It can move on steeper surfaces. It’s also capable of navigating different types of surfaces with all kinds of textures, including glass, a foam sleeping pad, and a concrete sidewalk.
Help in search and rescue mission
Self-contained fuel could be a crucial advancement in creating bots for search-and-rescue missions as they are not tethered to an energy source and can crawl into tight spaces. RoBeetle is a biologically inspired system whose fuel-powered design may serve as a model for the creation of a new diverse generation of autonomous microrobots capable of terrestrial, aquatic, and aerial locomotion as described in the study.
Scientists now need to figure out how to keep it powered over longer periods as it is slower in comparison to other robots. If they can program the RoBeetle to communicate with its human operator, methanol-powered microbots could one day act as artificial pollinators or assist complex surgeries. Next-generation prototypes will use the same artificial muscle principle with a speedier, more manoeuvrable design and a different fuel.
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