Tiny beetle bot powered by alcohol can lift its own body weight

21 Aug 2020

Still from ‘Scientists build methanol-powered beetle robot’. Image: South China Morning Post/YouTube

This week in future tech, researchers unveiled a beetle robot with great strength and a thirst for alcohol.

Researchers from the University of Southern California have spoken with New Scientist about their powerful little robot that could one day take to the skies.

The RoBeetle can carry up to 2.6 times its own body weight, which is less than two-tenths of a gram.

Unlike other miniature robots with limited battery capacity and performance, the RoBeetle is powered by a methanol fuel tank. With a full tank, the tiny micro-robot weighs just 183mg.

The methanol triggers an energy-releasing reaction with oxygen which changes the shape of the robot’s in-built wire muscles. This twitching effect allows the RoBeetle to crawl and move its horns to lift objects.

Future research is looking at super-powering the tiny bot with propane, which offers two and a half times more energy density than methanol at 50 megajoules per kilogram. Researchers are also hoping to give RoBeetle wings with funding from DARPA.

“We want to create the first completely autonomous flying robot at beetle scale,” said researcher Nestor Perez-Arancibia.

Engineers unveil ultra-light gaming glove for first-person shooters

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have revealed their project called InfinityGlove, a gaming glove that lets you shoot weapons in video games using just your hands.

While the concept of controlling a game using your hands is not new, the main problems have always been weight and flexibility. The InfinityGlove creators said that the glove has been in development for two years and the latest prototype weighs just 40g.

A network of five thread-like sensors – one for each finger – has enabled the researchers to map gestures to 11 inputs and commands for first-person shooter games such as Battlefield V.

‘Gesture-based control using our lightweight smart gloves can bring us one step closer to a truly immersive interface between humans and machines’

In order to accurately measure these gestures, the team has adapted microfibre sensor technology previously developed to measure pulse and bandage pressure. Each thin and stretchable sensor of rubber-like microfibre material is no thicker than a human hair. This network of sensors is filled with conductive liquid metal and, when a current runs through it, an electrical reading signal is generated which changes as the fibres are bent and the liquid metal is displaced.

“Current commercially available technology is not very responsive and causes a strain on the user’s hands after prolonged use due to their bulky setup,” said Prof Lim Chwee Teck, director of the NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology.

“We envision that gesture-based control using our lightweight smart gloves can bring us one step closer to a truly immersive interface between humans and machines.”

BP promises eco-fuel boost for aviation

BP’s aviation fuel division, Air BP, has agreed a deal with eco-friendly transportation developer Neste to significantly boost European access to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). According to the pair, the amount of SAF delivered this year and in 2021 will be a five-fold increase on that supplied by the businesses in 2019.

Neste’s annual capacity for sustainable aviation fuel is currently 100,000 tons. With their Singapore refinery expansion on the way, and with possible additional investment into their Rotterdam refinery, the company estimated it will have the capacity to produce some 1.5m tons of sustainable aviation fuel annually by 2023.

Neste’s SAF is produced from 100pc renewable waste and residue raw materials. The company claims that, over the lifecycle, it can reduce up to 80pc of greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional jet fuel.

“We believe sustainable aviation fuel will play an important role as the industry recovers from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Martin Thomsen, Air BP’s CEO.

“Through our successful ongoing collaboration with Neste, we are pleased to be able to offer our customers a substantially increased volume of SAF as they work towards reducing their emissions.”

Kirigami shape could give shoes superior grip

In a study published to Nature Biomedical Engineering, investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described a bioinspired assistive shoe grip based on the Japanese art of paper cutting, kirigami.

Kirigami can be used to create highly flexible surfaces that buckle from a flat sheet to a three-dimensional textured surface. Now, it has been used as a way to reduce the risk of slips and falls by adjusting as a person takes a step, increasing friction with pop-up spikes as necessary.

Tests on ice found that the shoe soles increased friction with the ground on slippery surfaces.

“What we developed is a dynamic shoe sole that can give you grip when you need it, which is when you are actually walking and moving,” said co-corresponding author Giovanni Traverso.

“The key is that it is dynamic and has the capacity to tune friction as you take a step. Current solutions like cleats have spikes that are always present, so a dynamic shoe grip that could adjust itself with movement would be a more ideal way to mitigate falling.”

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic