This purple little guy is the Gibbot, a robot designed by the Laboratory for Intelligent Mechanical Systems at Northwestern University to explore a particular type of locomotion that's been perfected by monkeys* to quickly and efficiently get around in trees.
Astute and loyal followers of IEEE Spectrum might remember ParkourBot, a two-dimensional gymnast robot also from Northwestern (in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon). ParkourBot is a pro at bouncing up and down walls, but it's not great at going sideways. The Gibbot, on the other hand, is designed primarily to investigate horizontal locomotion. Specifically, the Gibbot is intended to brachiate, which is a type of highly efficient motion used by (surprise!) gibbons.
Brachiation is essentially repetitive horizontal swinging: there's no net vertical motion, which means that the gibbon doesn't really have to expend much in the way of energy fighting gravity. Once it gets going, the gibbon can move very fast by just grabbing on and letting go at the right times. Figuring out what these times are (and what gaits they result in) is the tricky part, but the researchers were able to show off some successes:
The Gibbot itself consists of two arms with electromagnets at the ends and one powered joint in the middle. It swings around on a steel wall, which provides an unlimited number of clamping points for the magnets. This allows for the testing and comparison of a variety of different brachiating gaits, with a fairly ambitious (and awesome) goal in mind, according to the paper: "by employing a diverse suite of gaits, the Gibbot will be able to perform gymnastic maneuvers to reach specific handholds in the environment." Gymnastic maneuvers, you say? We can't wait.
Stable Open-Loop Brachiation on a Vertical Wall, by Nelson Rosa Jr., Adam Barber, Robert D. Gregg, and Kevin M. Lynch from Northwestern University, was presented this month at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in St. Paul, Minn.
*Before anybody sends us death threats, please rest assured that we are well aware that gibbons are apes and not monkeys.