The insect's strength and endurance, which contrasts with their small size, are always proverbial characteristics that research teams have sought to replicate in nanorobots, which can be useful in supporting search and rescue operations in earthquakes and floods.
However, these attempts have run into low performance of these robots, because the micromotors used with them are driven by low power sources, which do not make them capable of carrying exploratory sensors and working for long periods.
While the disasters of the Morocco earthquake and the flood in Libya in September showed the importance of the need for such solutions to search for living under the rubble, a research team from Cornell University in the United States, in a study published in the journal "Science", was promising that it is close to providing this technological solution.
This came after he succeeded in solving the energy problem, by creating a chemical energy system that could help a robot the size of an insect carry 22 times its weight, while working for long periods of time in support of search and rescue efforts.
How does the robot work?
Cameron Aubin, from the "Sibley" School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, and the first researcher of the study, explains the details of their new system, saying in statements via email to Al Jazeera Net, "Our robot, when viewed from above, looks like the letter (H), and thus the robot is divided from the top into two halves, each half hollow and connected to the front and back leg (the robot has 4 legs)."
"We use equipment from the outside to pump a mixture of methane and oxygen gases into the hollow parts, and the electrode wires connected to the robot are used to create a small spark inside these cavities," Aubin said.
"This ignites the gases and causes a miniature explosion, and the result is a rapid expansion of hot gases, which causes a small expandable membrane between the hollow combustion chambers and the legs to swell, and these membranes swell like a balloon, and then squeeze on the legs, causing the robot to jump."
"We can adjust the amount of gas we put into the robot and how quickly this gas ignites, and as a result we can control how fast it moves and how high it jumps, and we can also burn only two halves at a time, and this will make the robot spin, allowing us to direct it."
The robot, capable of working for long periods due to the innovative power system, is only 2.9 centimeters long and can reach areas that may be challenging for humans during natural disasters, for example, it can slide into rocks or debris from a collapsed structure.
"Due to the high energy density of the fuel we use, the robot has an impressive payload capacity (carrying 22 times its own weight) and can perform very strong movements (for example, jumping vertically about 60 centimeters), allowing it to navigate through obstacles and difficult terrain," says Aubin.
He adds that the robot could be "equipped with small cameras or sensory sensors, and swarms can be launched for environmental monitoring, especially in high-risk environments (such as the desert, the Arctic and even other planets)."
The new robot is printed with three-dimensional technology, allowing scalability and cost reduction (Getty Images)
Previous attempts failed
There have been previous attempts to operate chemical-powered robots, but they have not continued to operate for long periods, and "To our knowledge, this is the first robot to make direct and repeated use of combustion on such a small scale," says Aubin.
Some other robots that preceded this project have used combustion for only one operation, where they explode once, jump into the air, and that's it, while the new robot works continuously and repeatedly, even at very high frequencies.
"We proved that our combustion actuators can operate at 100 Hz, or 100 distinct explosions per second. There are other robots that have used liquid fuels in the past, but their operations are low in power and frequency, they don't take advantage of the total energy potential of chemical fuels, and our design is more like a small engine, which is something new in the world of insect-like robots."
"We haven't done a careful analysis of its cost, but if the materials used to manufacture it are purchased in large quantities, I suspect that the cost of building it could range from $2 to $5, and this could be a generous estimate." "Our robot is mostly printed with three-dimensional technology, allowing for scalability and cost reduction."
The team used chemical energy for long periods of time to power near-insect-sized robots (Getty Images)
Praise and note
Ryan Troppy, a materials scientist at Northwestern University, applauds the work, saying in a report published by Nature, "The research team has succeeded in using chemical energy for impressively long periods of time to power robots that are close to insects."
But Troopy stresses that "this robot will need to be further developed for use in search and rescue operations, where ways to burn fuel on board must be devised, so that it is completely unrestricted, which is not easy, and it is a big obstacle that must be addressed."
What Tropy means, is that the robot is currently connected to external fuel and electricity sources through pipes and wires, and this form hinders its employment in search and rescue operations, but when Al Jazeera Net returned to Openen with this note, he stressed that what Troopy is demanding is what they are currently working on.
"Our next step is to make the robot completely unrestricted, to be commercially viable, and that will require high-voltage electronics, a fuel tank on board, and thanks to its large carrying capacity (22 times the body weight), we believe we will be able to get this work done," says Aubin.