Minuscule RoBeetle Turns Liquid Methanol Into Muscle Power

Without any batteries or electronics at all, this 88-milligram autonomous robotic insect can walk for hours

6 min read

Robotic beetle powered by fuel
Image: Science Robotics

It’s no secret that one of the most significant constraints on robots is power. Most robots need lots of it, and it has to come from somewhere, with that somewhere usually being a battery because there simply aren’t many other good options. Batteries, however, are famous for having poor energy density, and the smaller your robot is, the more of a problem this becomes. And the issue with batteries goes beyond the battery itself, but also carries over into all the other components that it takes to turn the stored energy into useful work, which again is a particular problem for small-scale robots.

In a paper published this week in Science Robotics, researchers from the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, demonstrate RoBeetle, an 88-milligram four legged robot that runs entirely on methanol, a power-dense liquid fuel. Without any electronics at all, it uses an exceptionally clever bit of mechanical autonomy to convert methanol vapor directly into forward motion, one millimeter-long step at a time.

It’s not entirely clear from the video how the robot actually works, so let’s go through how it’s put together, and then look at the actuation cycle.

Robot beetle powered by methanolRoBeetle (A) uses a methanol-based actuation mechanism (B). The robot’s body (C) includes the fuel tank subassembly (D), a tank lid, transmission, and sliding shutter (E), bottom side of the sliding shutter (F), nickel-titanium-platinum composite wire and leaf spring (G), and front legs and hind legs with bioinspired backward-oriented claws (H).Image: Science Robotics

The body of RoBeetle is a boxy fuel tank that you can fill with methanol by poking a syringe through a fuel inlet hole. It’s a quadruped, more or less, with fixed hind legs and two front legs attached to a single transmission that moves them both at once in a sort of rocking forward and up followed by backward and down motion. The transmission is hooked up to a leaf spring that’s tensioned to always pull the legs backward, such that when the robot isn’t being actuated, the spring and transmission keep its front legs more or less vertical and allow the robot to stand. Those horns are primarily there to hold the leaf spring in place, but they’ve got little hooks that can carry stuff, too.

The actuator itself is a nickel-titanium (NiTi) shape-memory alloy (SMA), which is just a wire that gets longer when it heats up and then shrinks back down when it cools. SMAs are fairly common and used for all kinds of things, but what makes this particular SMA a little different is that it’s been messily coated with platinum. The “messily” part is important for a reason that we’ll get to in just a second.

The way that the sliding vent is attached to the transmission is the really clever bit about this robot, because it means that the motion of the wire itself is used to modulate the flow of fuel through a purely mechanical system. Essentially, it's an actuator and a sensor at the same time.

One end of the SMA wire is attached to the middle of the leaf spring, while the other end runs above the back of the robot where it’s stapled to an anchor block on the robot’s rear end. With the SMA wire hooked up but not actuated (i.e., cold rather than warm), it’s short enough that the leaf spring gets pulled back, rocking the legs forward and up. The last component is embedded in the robot’s back, right along the spine and directly underneath the SMA actuator. It’s a sliding vent attached to the transmission, so that the vent is open when the SMA wire is cold and the leaf spring is pulled back, and closed when the SMA wire is warm and the leaf spring is relaxed. The way that the sliding vent is attached to the transmission is the really clever bit about this robot, because it means that the motion of the wire itself is used to modulate the flow of fuel through a purely mechanical system. Essentially, it’s an actuator and a sensor at the same time.

The actuation cycle that causes the robot to walk begins with a full fuel tank and a cold SMA wire. There’s tension on the leaf spring, pulling the transmission back and rocking the legs forward and upward. The transmission also pulls the sliding vent into the open position, allowing methanol vapor to escape up out of the fuel tank and into the air, where it wafts past the SMA wire that runs directly above the vent. 

The platinum facilitates a reaction of the methanol (CH3OH) with oxygen in the air (combustion, although not the dramatic flaming and explosive kind) to generate a couple of water molecules and some carbon dioxide plus a bunch of heat, and this is where the messy platinum coating is important, because messy means lots of surface area for the platinum to interact with as much methanol as possible. In just a second or two the temperature of the SMA wire skyrockets from 50 to 100 ºC and it expands, allowing the leaf spring about 0.1 mm of slack. As the leaf spring relaxes, the transmission moves the legs backwards and downwards, and the robot pulls itself forward about 1.2 mm. At the same time, the transmission is closing off the sliding vent, cutting off the supply of methanol vapor. Without the vapor reacting with the platinum and generating heat, in about a second and a half, the SMA wire cools down. As it does, it shrinks, pulling on the leaf spring and starting the cycle over again. Top speed is 0.76 mm/s (0.05 body-lengths per second).

An interesting environmental effect is that the speed of the robot can be enhanced by a gentle breeze. This is because air moving over the SMA wire cools it down a bit faster while also blowing away any residual methanol from around the vents, shutting down the reaction more completely. RoBeetle can carry more than its own body weight in fuel, and it takes approximately 155 minutes for a full tank of methanol to completely evaporate. It’s worth noting that despite the very high energy density of methanol, this is actually a stupendously inefficient way of powering a robot, with an estimated end-to-end efficiency of just 0.48 percent. Not 48 percent, mind you, but 0.48 percent, while in general, powering SMAs with electricity is much more efficient.

However, you have to look at the entire system that would be necessary to deliver that electricity, and for a robot as small as RoBeetle, the researchers say that it’s basically impossible. The lightest commercially available battery and power supply that would deliver enough juice to heat up an SMA actuator weighs about 800 mg, nearly 10 times the total weight of RoBeetle itself. From that perspective, RoBeetle’s efficiency is actually pretty good. 

RoBeetleComparison of various untethered microrobots and bioinspired soft robots that use different power and actuation strategies.Image: A. Kitterman/Science Robotics; adapted from R.L.T./MIT

There are some other downsides to RoBeetle we should mention—it can only move forwards, not backwards, and it can’t steer. Its speed isn’t adjustable, and once it starts walking, it’ll walk until it either breaks or runs out of fuel. The researchers have some ideas about the speed, at least, pointing out that increasing the speed of fuel delivery by using pressurized liquid fuels like butane or propane would increase the actuator output frequency. And the frequency, amplitude, and efficiency of the SMAs themselves can be massively increased “by arranging multiple fiber-like thin artificial muscles in hierarchical configurations similar to those observed in sarcomere-based animal muscle,” making RoBeetle even more beetle-like.

As for sensing, RoBeetle’s 230-mg payload is enough to carry passive sensors, but getting those sensors to usefully interact with the robot itself to enable any kind of autonomy remains a challenge. Mechanically intelligence is certainly possible, though, and we can imagine RoBeetle adopting some of the same sorts of systems that have been proposed for the clockwork rover that JPL wants to use for Venus exploration. The researchers also mention how RoBeetle could potentially serve as a model for microbots capable of aerial locomotion, which is something we’d very much like to see.

An 88-milligram insect-scale autonomous crawling robot driven by a catalytic artificial muscle,” by Xiufeng Yang, Longlong Chang, and Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia from University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, was published in Science Robotics.

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