This Bipedal Robot Can Walk, Fly, or Even Ride a Skateboard

A team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have come up with a bipedal robot that performs the twin function of walking and flying. The team claims that their latest creation is not just agile but also capable of complex movements. Named Leonardo, the part-walking robot, part-flying drone is built in such a way that it can balance itself on a slackline, hop around, or even ride a skateboard.  

Designed and developed by Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), the robot’s multi-joint legs and propeller-based thrusters help it achieve a fine degree of control over its balance, researchers say.

Speaking on the project, Soon-Jo Chung, Bren Professor of Aerospace and Control and Dynamical Systems says that the team drew inspiration from nature, adding that the birds can fly as well navigate telephone lines. “A complex yet intriguing behaviour happens as birds move between walking and flying,” says Chung, who is also the corresponding author of the study, adding that the researchers wanted to understand and learn from that. 

Chung elaborates that the way Leonardo uses synchronised control of distributed propeller-based thrusters and leg joints is akin to a human in a jet suit controlling his/her legs and feet while landing and taking off. “We wanted to study the interface of walking and flying from the dynamics and control standpoint.”

The team said that bipedal robots are capable of tackling complex terrains just as humans move while jumping or running or even climbing stairs. However, when it comes to rough terrain, it becomes difficult for these machines. But that’s when the flying feature of Leonardo comes to the rescue — if it can’t walk or jump on the ground, it can simply fly over it. 

Kyunam Kim, a postdoctoral researcher, says that a robot such as Leonardo can navigate through challenging environments more efficiently compared to traditional robots, as it switches between the two available means of movement. Leonardo “aims to bridge the gap between the two disparate domains of aerial and bipedal locomotion that are not typically intertwined in existing robotic systems,” says Kim, who is also the co-lead author of the paper.

There are some limitations too. Not only does Leonardo consume excessive energy when it flies, but also possesses only limited payload capacity.

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